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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.”
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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?”