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A groundbreaking social experiment in an era of increasing partisanship

If the early data bears  out, it’s possible there is a whole world of potential human connection out there just waiting for us. 

"Freedom From Want" by Norman Rockwell
National Archives and Records Administration
"Freedom From Want" by Norman Rockwell
Heading into the holidays, I kept hearing the same existentially dreadful question: In these poisonous partisan times, how can one spend any amount of time in family or social settings without getting into a bitter political shouting match?  

Good news. Over the course of numerous awkward office parties and wine-fueled evenings in my childhood home, I made a discovery that may free us all from this crushing anxiety.

It turns out there are things to talk about with other people other than partisan politics. 

I know, I know. I didn’t believe it at first either. If you look at cable news or listen to top podcasts, you’d think there is literally nothing that escapes the light-crushing blackhole of partisan politics. 

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Yet in conversations with family and acquaintances alike, I found there were, by my count, at least a dozen topics to discuss with other people that were not partisan politics. (It’s possible there are even more, but this research is in its very early days, so I am still compiling the data). 

For starters, it turns out that many people have hobbies that are not making political quips on Twitter. I had no idea either! Apparently, some people craft things out of wood or metal. Others decorate cakes. There is a group of people who get into physical activities, like competitive mountain bikes. Learning about any of those, how they work, or why it’s fun to ride your bike in the mud, is fascinating, and has nothing to do with who won the last media cycle. Wild! 

Tane Danger
Tane Danger
Another example: I spent a good part of a holiday party with a woman who had immigrated from Cuba – a situation ripe for questions and concerns about current international affairs and policy. Yet what she wanted to talk about was her career in costume design and how her daughter had recently moved into a house on the same block. Conclusion: Many people like talking about their families, their homes, and their work, at least as much if not more than the evolving nature of political parties in the modern era. It’s unbelievable, but true! 

You might think these conversations constitute a form of escapism and the opportunity to take a break from partisan politics reeks of privilege. I worried about that too. But it turned out that asking people something other than, “Can you believe he tweeted that?” resulted in surprisingly meaningful conversations. 

My father and I spent a part of Christmas Eve discussing different ways his generation and my generation experience social isolation, faith, and technology. I learned things in that discussion about how we each see the world far beyond what we’d get from debating fantasy presidential match-ups. 

I considered waiting until next November to share this groundbreaking study, but it seems as if 2020 is unlikely to offer even a moment’s reprieve from the peril of temper-raising political arguments. From the primaries to impeachment to a rapidly approaching general election, partisan politics will be front and center virtually every day.

Yet my brief experiment suggests there is more to life than unproductive fights over the latest political gaff on the CNN chyron. How much more? Could it be that 10% of all topics are bigger than politics? 20%? No one knows for sure. But if the early data bears  out, it’s possible there is a whole world of potential human connection out there just waiting for us. 

Tane Danger is the host of The Theater of Public Policy, co-founder of Danger Boat Productionsand an M.P.P. graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.


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