Midterm Elections: Turning Battles into Opportunities

Each Wednesday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.

War chests. Battleground states. Armies of volunteers. Political arsenals. Military metaphors have become such common election parlance that many of us toss around these terms with little thought for their bellicose roots.

In many ways, such terms are apt descriptors. Political campaigns are rough-and-tumble affairs, and most contenders end up metaphorically bloodied in the process. Opposing campaigns act as if they are at war with each other, leaving many voters feeling caught in the crossfire.

As the summer draws to a close, general election campaigns will shift into high gear. Political ads will flood the airwaves, robo-calls will jam phone lines, and mailboxes will overflow with menacing postcards.

What are some practical ways to prepare for the November elections without getting caught up in the battle?

It is quite tempting (but also very difficult) to ignore the barrage of political messages during heated campaigns. Many of us choose to tune out. But elections have consequences, and voter participation matters. Decisions made in Washington, in state capitals, and in our cities and towns make a difference for us and millions of others. Paying attention to government actions, engaging in constructive policy debates, and voting are all ways we can demonstrate love for neighbor.

The best starting point for constructive political engagement is to be informed. Follow domestic, international, and campaign news from a range of media sources. When something captures your attention, investigate more thoroughly. Research and compare the major candidates seeking elected office.

If you read or see something disturbing, verify the information before sharing it with others. More often than not, the most alarming stories circulating on the Internet and the most outrageous claims in political ads turn out to be over-exaggerations, half-truths, or even outright lies.

Many resources are available to help dispel false rumors and sort out the facts, such as websites designed to assist with political fact-checking. The Tampa Bay Tribune’s Politifact investigates politicians’ and interest groups’ statements, rating them on a scale that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire” (for the most outrageous and unsubstantiated assertions). Annenberg’s Fact Check tests the accuracy of political claims from a wide range of sources. Their section, “Ask FactCheck,” allows visitors to ask questions or submit political messages for verification.

Another way to contribute positively to the fall campaigns is to seek opportunities for constructive political conversations with others, fostering thoughtful and respectful dialogue.

Many people report learning about politics and government from friends and family. Those who regularly follow the news and keep up on political campaigns are important resources for others who aren’t as informed. Those who don’t follow current events closely may seek political cues from people whom they know and trust. If you pay attention to politics, you can help others by sharing what you learn and answering their questions.

Politics is contentious, and disagreements often run deep. Many people have strong feelings about political issues, and many of our models of political discourse are angry, arrogant, and disdainful. Despite these barriers, it is possible to think critically and talk respectfully across political differences.

Engaging in constructive political conversations begins best with taking the time to listen to others express their political views, especially those with whom we disagree. In some political discussions, it seems impossible for anyone to finish a sentence, moreover explain a complete thought. A good way to foster meaningful dialogue is to allow those with different views to take turns explaining their particular positions and why they hold the views that they do. Give each person a few uninterrupted minutes and then open the discussion for clarifying questions. Ideally, someone who is gifted at resolving conflicts could serve as an informal “moderator,” guiding the conversation from a more neutral stance.

If people make outrageous claims or say something that just doesn’t ring true, ask where they first learned the information. If possible, try to dispel rumors and lies, gently pointing people to reputable fact-checking resources.

Even when we enter conversations with a goal of maintaining civility, discussions can quickly overheat. When this happens, it may be best to call a cease-fire, graciously but firmly changing the subject to something less controversial.

Let’s approach the coming campaign season less like a battle and more like an opportunity to learn more about our government, ourselves, and those around us. Instead of joining the war making, we can model a different way of talking and learning about politics.

- Amy E. Black is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College and author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Faith, and Reason.