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It's Time to Turn Down the Heat in Our Political Discourse

By Damon Circosta

RALEIGH - One of the things that make democracy so great is that it is a mechanism to synthesize a variety of voices.

We are a people known for our differences, be it cultural, political or religious. So it makes sense for us to perpetually engage each other in a discussion about how best to accommodate our various viewpoints. Since the founding of our nation, a recurrent theme in this democratic conversation is the appropriate role of government in our lives.

There are those who seek a state that plays a key role in a variety of sectors, be it transportation, education or the environment. There are also those who seek a more minimalist approach. Throughout our shared history this conversation has ebbed and flowed, with a healthy amount of back and forth. Lately though, the discussion about the role of the state looks less like a conversation and more like an argument.

A healthy conversation is easy to spot. A full-blown argument is even easier to see. If two people take turns speaking, lean in to listen and occasionally nod, it’s a conversation. Yelling, shaking and shouting mean it’s an argument.

Conversations are useful as they are a way to convey information, perhaps convince someone of the righteousness of your opinion and keep communication channels open. Arguments are less useful. They are really more displays than anything. No one wants to listen to an argument and rarely is anyone convinced by somebody yelling at them.

Our conversation about the appropriate role of government has gone from a discussion that occasionally got a little animated to a shouting match. No one is trying to convince anyone anymore. It’s not a thoughtful back-and-forth, it’s a verbal war.

For the vast majority of us who see value in organizing a society with some state involvement (schools, public safety, environmental rules) but who also think that our government is capable of producing the occasional overreach (warrantless wiretapping, unwieldy bureaucracy) this argument about the role of government is getting tiresome.

Most of us simply want to tune out the boisterous squabblers and go about our lives. But sadly, the loudest among us are often the ones who are making decisions about the role of government in society. There are plenty of explanations for this: increased partisanship; gerrymandered voting districts that only let the ideologically “pure” get elected; and the 24-hour cable news cycle that puts a premium on screaming pundits, to name a few.

Solutions aren’t easy to come by. But there are things we can do to help turn the debate about the role of government away from a yell fest and back into a conversation.

Let’s start by giving each other the benefit of the doubt. The guy who wants less government isn’t a heartless extremist bent on turning America into some lawless “Mad Max” wasteland. And the person who thinks we could use more public investments isn’t a “nanny-state commie” who wants the government to tell you what clothes to wear. We all find ourselves on a continuum about the appropriate role of the state in society and most of us are lumped like an egg in a snake, right in the middle.

So next time you find yourself in a heated discussion on the topic of how much government is too much or too little, lean in and listen. A real conversation beats yelling past one another, hands down.

Damon Circosta is the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.