TALKING SENSE ABOUT POLITICS

Jack Meacham
Quaerere Press (2017)
ISBN 9780999297605
Reviewed by Araceli Noriega for Reader Views (3/19)

Jack Meacham grew up in California. He earned degrees in psychology at Stanford University and the University of Michigan and then served in the Peace Corps in Turkey. For several decades, he was a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo—The State University of New York (SUNY), where he was promoted to the rank of SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor. He was also elected a Fellow in the American Psychological Association in recognition of my research and writing. He served as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2003. For several years Jack has been a resource consultant for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, participating in AAC&U's programs to strengthen undergraduate education, particularly around issues of diversity and democracy. He has been invited to lecture and conduct workshops on multiculturalism and diversity, student-centered pedagogy, and assessment of student learning at national conferences and on many college and university campuses.

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Hello, Jack and welcome to Reader Views!  What is “Talking Sense about Politics” all about?

 Washington, DC politics is in tatters. If we accept gridlock as the new norm, we should feel frightened. American citizens are increasingly frustrated, angry, and helpless about the polarization between Democrats and Republicans. It obstructs effective discussion and thwarts workable solutions for critical issues facing American society. We must solve this problem, and it must be solved soon. Democracy is at stake.

“Talking Sense about Politics” urges ordinary citizens and leaders to recognize four points of view, not two partisan stances, on issues in American society. The Loyal, Tactful, Detached, and Caring perspectives, grounded in assumptions about people's identities and intentions, provide a useful tool for replacing the misleading and tired dichotomies of left versus right or liberal versus conservative.

I apply these four perspectives to seemingly intractable problems including minority and women's rights, immigration, cheating in sports, religious freedom, bullying, inequality, foreign-policy, climate change, homelessness, freedom of speech, gun control, and more.

Rather than accept that polarization and gridlock are here to stay, “Talking Sense about Politics” encourages citizens, voters, and the media to think outside the box: broadly, creatively, and effectively about the most important issues facing American society. In my last chapter, I include seven, specific step-by-step suggestions for how to have a constructive conversation with anyone holding divergent ideas and beliefs. These seven suggestions promise to end the polarization war and restore respect and tolerance for all Americans.

“Talking Sense about Politics” stands out among other books on political polarization in American society. Rather than accept that it is here to stay, or suggest idealistic and impractical changes in American political institutions, my book focuses on changing how individual citizens and voters and the media think and communicate. Rather than attempting to explain polarization in terms of personalities or types of people, I focus on communication and dialogues. How people talk with each other is more important than who they are.

What inspired you to write this book?

“Talking Sense about Politics” is the culmination of three decades of teaching and scholarship.

At the University at Buffalo, I served as Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education while the university was engaged in revising its general education program, including integration of diversity and multiculturalism into the curriculum. I worked together with other faculty to design and teach American Pluralism, a required course that introduced students to issues of race, gender, ethnicity, social class, and religious sectarianism. This innovative course quickly became a model emulated on campuses nationwide. My engagement with students and diversity was recognized by an invitation to assemble and edit a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist on multiculturalism and diversity in higher education.

The extreme and angry polarization in America on many issues, the abysmal level of public and media discourse, and the paralysis and inability of our government to solve pressing problems make issues of diversity and democracy more relevant and urgent than ever. I began addressing these concerns in the 1990s with articles and chapters including "The interpersonal basis of everyday problem-solving," "Conflict and cooperation in adulthood: A role for both?" and "Conflict in multiculturalism classes: Too much heat or too little?" In “Talking Sense about Politics” I now present an integrated conceptual framework that provides insights into a broad range of critical issues facing American society.

What is your take on the current political environment in the U.S.?

There is increasing concern about the consequences of polarization for the future of the United States. Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, "Let's face it. The American political system is broken" because "politicians have figured out what works for their own careers: playing to their base, denouncing the other side, and blocking rivals for getting credit for anything." Polarization threatens the foundation of credible, commonly held information required for American politics.

Commenting on "the feeling of many Americans that our politics are totally stuck," Thomas Friedman has written, "The nonstop fighting between our two political parties has left many Americans feeling like the children of two permanently divorcing parents. The country is starved to see its two major parties do hard things together again." Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker on extremist voices in the media and on the internet, notes that "What’s really going on could be anything from party realignment to the unraveling of the Republic."

At the close of 2015, The New York Times asked its readers what they felt was the greatest challenge facing the United States. Polarization ranked among the top five challenges.

This climate of angry polarization is dangerous. It undermines the open exchange of ideas and respectful discussion and debate among family members, neighbors, coworkers, and citizens that is essential for America to function and endure as a democratic society. Political polarization and its consequences were driving themes and forces for the candidates, the media, and the voters in the 2016 presidential campaign and the 2018 midterm elections.

It’s incomprehensible how divided we have become as a nation. Why has this happened and how is it even possible?

The two major political parties now focus on message wars and symbolic votes; for example, on guns and climate change, while failing to enact legislation critical for the country's future. Image and branding have become more important than facts, loyalty to party more important than to country. Issues that should be nonpartisan such as education, climate change, and infrastructure are now partisan. The continual bickering and inability of Congress to act has eroded the American public's respect for Congress and, more generally, has led Americans to have less trust in government and democratic political processes.

But there are more than two sides dividing us and “Talking Sense about Politics” presents possible viewpoints of people from every possible background. How did you maintain neutrality throughout?

I was very pleased when a reviewer wrote (on Amazon), “By the time I finished his book, I didn't know what Meacham believed politically, I don't know who he voted for in the last election, or how he feels about any number of hot-button issues.”

How was I able to do this as a writer? This may reflect my philosophy as a teacher, which is not to expect students to agree with my own perspective. Instead, I ask that students become familiar with and try to understand both or all sides of an issue. For example, when we have structured debates in the classroom, students must be prepared when called on to argue either for or against the affirmative resolution. Of course, this means that as a teacher I have to be fully prepared on both or all sides and, if possible, not let the students know which side I personally support.

I have worked hard to adopt a writing style that is non-academic. No prior knowledge of history or political theory or philosophy is required for readers to understand and benefit from my book. There are no theories, no numbers or graphs, and no jargon or technical vocabulary. I encourage readers to think about issues and discuss the four perspectives with family and friends.

And I tried to incorporate a lot of familiar examples such as You’ve Got Mail (Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks), bullying, how air conditioning temperatures affect men and women differently, Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, and many more.

What is the primary realization you hope readers take away from reading, “Talking Sense about Politics?”

People hold not two but four different and overlapping perspectives on critical issues in American society: the Loyal perspective, competing and being in charge; the Tactful perspective, getting along with others; the Detached perspective, disengaged and working things out by oneself; and the Caring perspective, cooperating with and looking out for others.

Why does recognizing more than two perspectives matter? If we believe there are only two positions--left and right, liberal and conservative--we are tempted to ignore the complexities of issues facing America and crush everything that differs from our party affiliation. Two camps leave out a lot of Americans who feel their views aren't represented by either of the dominant positions. Feeling left out, they drop out of civic discourse, lose trust in government, and stop voting. Recognizing that in reality four American perspectives better represent our personal and political views will encourage and challenge citizens and voters and the media to think broadly, creatively, and effectively about the urgent problems facing American society.

How does your book equip readers in the ability to engage in conversations with people of opposing viewpoints?

Rather than accept that polarization and gridlock are here to stay, “Talking Sense about Politics” encourages citizens, voters, and the media to think outside the box: broadly, creatively, and effectively about the most important issues facing American society. In my last chapter, I include seven, specific step-by-step suggestions for how to have a constructive conversation with anyone holding divergent ideas and beliefs. These seven suggestions promise to end the polarization war and restore respect and tolerance for all Americans.

Readers will be challenged and empowered by the framework of Loyal, Tactful, Detached, and Caring perspectives instead of liberal versus conservative, right versus left. They will better understand the nuances of their own positions on important matters in American society and make more coherent and convincing presentations in conversations with others. Readers will also find that the 16 dialogues based on the perspectives provide useful tools for listening more carefully and respecting what others have to say and contribute on the issues that they had not themselves thought of.




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Our conversations about the issues facing American society should become less often occasions for anger, blame, defensiveness, or tuning out. Ideally, they will become more often opportunities for spirited engagement and joy in discovering both what others have to contribute that we had not thought of and also the great breadth of what we as Americans do believe and value in common and our shared hopes for America's future.

Can you give us an example?

The support of Everett Dirksen, the Republican senator from Illinois, was instrumental in passing Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1984.

The friendship in the 1980s between Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill enabled passage of the Social Security Amendments of 1983 and the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Both Reagan and O’Neill were highly partisan leaders of opposing political parties, yet they were also good friends who were able to discuss the day’s political events and share stories.

Tact and moderation are reflected in the 1993 agreement by war hero and Republican Senator John McCain and antiwar activist and Democratic Senator John Kerry that no Americans remained in Vietnamese prisons, opening the way to diplomatic recognition and a true ending of the war.

Another example is the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, the result of extensive discussion and compromises between Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Minnesota and Democratic Senator Patty Murray from Washington.

What is the biggest thing that people think they know about politics, that isn't so?

People hold not two but four different and overlapping perspectives on critical issues in American society—Loyal, Tactful, Detached, and Caring. People falsely believe that there are only two positions—left and right, liberal and conservative. Two camps leave out a lot of Americans who feel their views aren't represented by either of the dominant positions.

What is the most important thing that people don’t know about politics, that they need to know?

People hold not two but four different and overlapping perspectives on critical issues in American society—Loyal, Tactful, Detached, and Caring. Detached voters—also described as independent voters and swing voters—now represent between a third and a half of the American electorate—more than either Republicans or Democrats—and so cannot be ignored. In “Talking Sense about Politics” I include a chapter on how to win elections with Detached voters.

What kind of response to “Talking Sense about Politics” have you received from readers?

Generally positive, lots of good reviews on Amazon.

What was the most difficult part writing “Talking Sense about Politics?”

I don’t follow professional sports closely. So, it was a challenge to write in an engaging and even-handed manner about cheating in sports versus good sportsmanship (dialogue 2, pages 67 to 71). I was pleased when a friend who is a sports nut said that I hit a home run in this brief section.

How can people remain long-term friends when differences emerge in their power and prestige? This can be a difficult situation and unfortunately friendships sometimes fail. So, writing about this and coming up with convincing examples (such as Bert and Ernie) was also very difficult. The answers include listening carefully to each other, demonstrating respect for the other’s standpoint, redefining the situation to emphasize their independent relationship, and much more (dialogue 16, pages 170 to 176). In the end, I think this is one of the best brief sections in the book and the only section that I really want my children to read, think about, and remember.

Our reviewer said “Talking Sense about Politics” is a necessary conversation guide for every American citizen. Are you doing any speaking engagements, book signings, etc., to get the word out about your book?

I’m available but not actively seeking at present.

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Jonathan Zimmerman, writing in The Atlantic in 2016, identifies as the most urgent problem in American civic life our inability to communicate with people who do not share our opinions. He argues that our schools aren't doing enough to teach young people how to engage civilly with other Americans over divisive issues.

Adoption of “Talking Sense about Politics” as a college textbook is reasonable for lower level courses in political science and sociology. The reviews of 20 current issues make this book useful as a source book in English writing courses and in college debate courses. The 16 model dialogues introduced in chapter 4 and illustrated in chapters 5 through 8 can be a useful classroom tool for teachers and students. Some high school teachers and advanced students might also find my book to be a useful resource.

So, tell us more about you. What do you like to read?

Currently, I can’t read enough of Julian Barnes, the British fiction writer, e.g., “The Sense of an Ending (Booker Prize),” “The Lemon Table,” “The Only Story,” and several others.

Which authors have inspired your own writing journey?

Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Jean Piaget, Orhan Pamuk, Jurgen Habermas, Annie Dillard.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

I’m the author of over 100 professional book chapters and journal articles. I served for a decade as editor of the journal Human Development (Basel, Switzerland, Karger Publishers), focused on theory in developmental psychology, and also for more than a decade on the Editorial Advisory Board of AAC&U's flagship journal Liberal Education.                             

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received – about writing or about life in general?

First thing in the morning, before doing anything else, write as much as you can.

Thank you for joining us today at Reader Views and sharing the message about “Talking Sense about Politics: How to Overcome Political Polarization in Your Next Conversation”

Thank you.

“Talking Sense about Politics” is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and other online sources. For more information or to connect with Jack Meacham, email mailto:meacham@buffalo.edu.