Would it be impolite of me to say “shut up” to the next politician who invites me to engage in a national conversation?
Over the past three months, notables have banged their lecterns demanding national conversations about health care disparities, abortion, hazing on college campuses, higher education, guns, gender, Joe Biden’s touchy ways, privacy, spousal abuse, the college admissions process, blackface, transportation, crime, the opioid crisis, and more.
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The genius of making a call for national conversation is that it’s a way of making a topic look like a priority while requiring no energy from its promoter to actually make it one. This is one of the reasons presidential candidate seem attracted to the trope. Appearing on a CNN town hall in late April, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., invoked the magic word after she was asked her position on Bernie Sanders’ view that other states should follow Vermont’s lead and allow felons to vote from prison.
“I think we should have that conversation,” Harris said, dodging the simple question.
Harris’ conversational enthusiasm evaporated the next day, as she reversed herself, tersely saying with no qualification that murderers and terrorists should be denied the ballot. That marked an end to Harris’ felony-vote dialogue, but not the end of her affinity for conversation. Last Sunday at an NAACP dinner in Detroit, she cited the “conversation” about who is the most electable Democrat in the race and offered her view. Who is electable? “It is all of us,” Harris said, more or less ending the need for conversation again.
Also appearing on conversation street has been Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. In a CNN town hall of her own, she called for not just a conversation about slavery reparations but a “national full-blown conversation about reparations.” By “full-blown” Warren wasn’t prepared to invite anybody to engage her directly on the topic, that two-sided thing that definitionally happens in a conversation. No, Warren’s idea of conversation is the passage of the House bill that would create a congressional panel of experts who would study and talk about reparations and then give Congress proposals so that, in her words, “we can as a nation do what’s right and heal.”
If that’s a conversation, include me out. I’m not the only one who senses a monologue coming when somebody announces the need for a conversation. Dana Milbank, Carlos Lozada, and Megan McArdle of the Washington Post and Wesley Morris of the New York Times have spilled ink in the direction of this observation in recent years. Why can’t politicians admit that their pleas for national conversations are just their way of dodging an issue, or in Warren’s case, a way to masquerade a preconceived outcome as a deliberative process? Even when the calls are sincere, they usually presage “a stiff lecture” from one side, as McArdle wrote last year, and the expectation that the other side “alternate between listening raptly and apologizing profusely.”
Who’s to blame for the plague of national conversations? It would be easy to blame President Barack Obama, seeing as he hosted a national conversation on race and called for one on gun control. But 44 eventually saw the error of his ways, calling the end results “stilted and politicized.” You might want to pin the liability on Hillary Clinton, who at the beginning of her 2008 run for the presidency promised that her campaign was not just a campaign but the “beginning of a conversation.” But where did she get that idea from? From husband Bill, who as president famously staged his national conversations on race before TV cameras? Nope. A Nexis search reveals that Al Gore popularized the idea of a “national conversation” as Clinton’s running mate in 1992, repeatedly calling their campaign “a national conversation about America’s future.” It took a lot of nerve to combine two empty concepts into one and call it a campaign slogan. Never was such a meatless sandwich served to so many American voters.
Future calls for national conversations may seem inevitable, but we’re making progress. Journalists already regard them as political cop-out. What we need is for comedians—perhaps Saturday Night Live’s writers?—to turn “national conversation” into a running punchline so we can replace the national conversations with genuine debate.
To participate in a monologue with little likelihood of a response from me, send your national conversation proposal via email to [email protected] My email alerts conducted a national conversation with my Twitter feed. How did that turn out? Funny you should ask. It is my RSS feed’s origin myth.