Modes of political discussion

Elsewhere in LJ-land, I’ve been in a discussion of the plight of conservatives in generally liberal environments such as the one I live in (and, presumably, the plight of liberals in generally conservative environments). I think it may be worthwhile examining the truth that all political discussions are not alike.

Leaving aside political debates where something is actually at stake, there are, I think, two basic modes of political discussion, which I’m tempted to give classy Greek names to, but I can’t find any that work for me.

On the one hand, there are discussions among people who share most of their fundamental values. I’m going to call this the club mode. These discussions tend to focus on elaborating the theory behind a shared policy position, or excoriating some opponent. (On the left, we had a lot of these the first week of November.) This mode doesn’t tend to question people’s beliefs that much, and it’s not supposed to. It’s ritual; it’s comforting and invigorating. This is the mode of so-called “activist” blogs like dKos or Powerline.

On the other, there are discussions among people with diverse and often opposing ideologies. I’ll call this the forum mode. These can be antagonistic or not, depending on the temperaments of the people involved. Discussion tends to be more formal, as you can’t assume very much when constructing your argument, and have to retreat back to more basic principles. Forum-style discussion tends to be more demanding, which is draining for a lot of people.

I think, for most people, a balance is healthy. Too much forum-style discussion, and you start to feel besieged; too much club-style, and your political thinking gets flabby and cultish. (Some people seem to have different political metabolisms; Christopher Hitchens, for example, seems to thrive on all forum-style all the time.)

Thus the singleton’s dilemma. A conservative in the Bay Area has ample opportunity for forum-mode debate; not so much for club-mode. Also, it will get awkward if he happens to be in the room when a bunch of liberals launch into a club-mode discussion. Nobody likes it when their club-style bull session gets hijacked into forum mode, but nobody wants to sit through someone else’s club session.

Originally published on LiveJournal