Actually, Conversations Are Bad

Listen closely and you’ll hear many 2020 candidates offer the same dodge to different issues.

Mike Segar / Randall Hill / Kamil Krzaczynski / Reuters / The Atlantic

We need to have a conversation in this country about soul-deadening political clichés.

If you’ve spent any time following the early stages of the 2020 presidential race, you’ve likely heard a politician call for a “conversation” about one issue or another. It is the catchall cop-out of this campaign season, and it’s been deployed in response to all manner of weighty policy questions.

What should be done with U.S. troops in Syria? Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas would like to see “a debate, a discussion, a national conversation” on the matter. Ditto the Green New Deal, which he regards as “a perfect point from which to start a conversation.”

A universal basic income? South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg thinks we should “have a conversation” about it.

Adding justices to the Supreme Court? A “national conversation” sounds good to Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Slavery reparations? Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wants a “national, full-blown conversation.”

Other lazy rhetorical devices plague our political discourse. But there is something especially grating about a candidate calling for a “conversation” when asked about an issue. It rings with the echo of empty ideas. It emanates the stench of platitude and prudence. The abstractness of the language renders the sentiment meaningless: Who, exactly, should be having these conversations? Where should they be taking place, and on what terms?

The truth is that when politicians are pleading for a national conversation, it is usually because they are trying to avoid one. Sometimes they use the phrase as they are revving up to deliver a righteous stump speech. (Fair enough, though it’s worth noting that if you’re the only one talking, and your mind is made up, that is by definition not a “conversation.”) More often, they are trying to dodge a specific policy question that’s politically tricky: See Senator Kamala Harris of California—asked whether she agrees with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont that felons should be able to vote from prison—responding, “I think we should have that conversation.”

The conversation-centric approach to politics may best be embodied by Marianne Williamson, the author and self-help guru running a long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination. Williamson spent much of last week’s primary debate chastising her opponents for getting too bogged down in policy details. “Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk,” she declared. “He’s not going to be beaten just [by] somebody who has plans.” What secret weapon would she turn to instead? “I’m going to harness love for political purposes.”

Williamson’s apparent antipathy toward concrete policy in favor of feel-good abstractions drew scorn from the political class. But many of her fellow candidates have demonstrated a similar tendency—punting on serious issues by settling for a “conversation.”

I should pause here to confess that I am not without sin. As someone who talks about politics on TV and faces the occasional post-panel Q&A session, I have developed an arsenal of pundit’s tricks to make myself look serious while evading questions I haven’t thought through. I nod thoughtfully, and say things like “That’s an important conversation to have ...” before pivoting to safer rhetorical ground. I take no pleasure in this admission, but I mention it because I understand the allure of this particular bromide.

Of course, not every plea for dialogue is shallow and feckless. At their best, political leaders can direct public attention to issues that are genuinely under-explored. During the Democratic debate, Booker used some of his valuable time on a crowded stage to inject bracing details into the discussion of LGBTQ rights:

We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African American trans Americans and the incredibly high rates of murder right now. We don’t talk enough about how many children, about 30 percent of LGBTQ kids, who do not go to school because of fear.

But in most cases, the demand for a “conversation” feels like a side step, a ruse—and it’s not limited to the realm of campaigns. When an executive at Wayfair was recently confronted over the company’s decision to sell furniture for a new immigrant detention facility, he tried to appease outraged employees by promising a future “conversation” about their ethics code. And last year, my colleague Ed Yong quoted a bioethicist frustrated by the way virus researchers keep taking the same risks while putting off difficult questions about their work. “Can we stop saying we need to have a conversation,” the bioethicist said, “and actually get to the conversation?”

The reality is that when it comes to the pressing political questions of the day, we are a country in constant conversation. There are very few issues or ideas that aren’t already being debated, parsed, picked apart, or talked about in some corner of the public square.

As it turns out, even this conversation—the one about all these hollow political pleas for “conversation”—began before I got to it. Shortly before finishing this piece, I came across a column by Politico’s Jack Shafer on the same theme, which led me to Megan McArdle’s treatment in 2018, and Wesley Morris’s in 2016, and Carlos Lozada’s in 2013, and Dana Milbank’s in 2007.

The national conversation has been going on for a long time. Presidential candidates should feel free to jump in, and let us know what they think.