How to ask the right political questions

Let's take personal responsibility for fixing our political discourse.

It’s election season again in Canada.

You can tell, because the robocalls have started, the requests for donations are more urgent, and politicians across the country have bought some new shoes for door-knocking.

This should be a happy time for Canadians. We are champions of “peace, order and good government,” which is why having a free and open debate about the issues that matter to us is so important.

Of course, politics these days isn’t a very happy place. I don’t think people have ever been so polarized in their views, and so unshakeable in their beliefs.

Lots of other commentators have theorized about why we now see politics as a tribal team sport. Some think it’s thanks to social media like Facebook and Twitter. Others blame the corporately owned traditional media like the National Post. Others blame state-funded media like the CBC. And still others point to churches becoming increasingly political from the pulpit as a cause of all the toxicity.

Rather than pointing fingers, I think it’s more important to do two things: admit that our political discourse is broken, and take personal responsibility for fixing it. Because it’s hard to be a democracy if we shout each other down, and hard to be a country that does good if we can’t be good to each other.

One way we can fix a damaged political conversation is to ask each other questions that go beyond political party lines, past the spin and the slogans, and get at the heart of the problems government is supposed to solve. Because when you strip away the different coloured signs and platforms, that’s what politics is really all about: it’s the way we come together, as free people, to solve problems in our society.

So here are three questions we can ask each other that re-frame political debates and differences in a way that’s positive.

“What are the most important problems that we need to solve, in your opinion?”

Focusing on the problems that need to be solved rather than on the positions that various parties take lets you start from a place of agreement. If someone says “poverty,” for example, we can talk about why this is an important issue and compare the various plans for dealing with it. Where this gets a bit tricky is if someone says something loaded like “immigration.” Where someone brings up something controversial, digging down with follow-up questions like “and why is that important to you?” can help uncover the deeper concerns behind a politically charged position.

“What’s the best way that we can do good for each other, and help each other out?”

Asking this question gets at the heart of what politics is supposed to be about. Of course, someone might answer with “get rid of all the Liberals” or “shoot all the Conservatives into the sun,” which, of course, isn’t helpful. Sometimes you have to keep asking follow-up questions that transcend political sloganeering – and get closer to the real issues.

“I disagree with that and see things differently. What could I say that would change your mind?”

It’s important to have debates, of course, but if someone isn’t open to changing their mind or learning from you, you’re not going to get very far. If a person responds to this question with “facts” or “examples,” you have a decent shot at a good conversation. If they say “nothing,” you have just saved yourself hours of aggravation.

The bottom line

Dalton McGuinty used to say that if you walked around any town anywhere in the world and asked people what was most important to them, they’d all say the same thing: “clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and a great, happy future for our kids.”
Maybe, in this election season, we should all focus on what’s truly important, to all of us.


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One Comment

  1. Thank you for these suggestions. Related to them is the use of slogans that have become empty of meaning and simply indications of a certain loyalty. “Reformed” had become one such slogans during my lifetime and people were saying, “He’s not Reformed Enough” without giving concrete expression to what they meant.

    The same with pro-life and pro-choice. A gentleman commented on my wearing a mask in a store where masks were NOT required: “You look like a thief or something.” I told him I was pro-life and he was obviously pro-choice, choosing not to wear a mask without regard for his or his neighbour’s health. My comments did not result in a lengthy discussion based on charity. 🙂

    Sometimes the divide is so great a little shock value can’t hurt anything, even if it doesn’t defuse a situation. But perhaps someone could write about “consistently pro-life” in a kinder, gentler way for Christian Courier to help bridge the ideological divisions on this and other contentious topics that use words as emotional slogans rather than means of communication deeply held convictions.

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