Presidential Conversations

There’s a mode of discourse that involves shouting prepared advertisements from a podium. The forum is timeboxed and regimented, 2 minutes per topic. The goal is to delineate how I’m great and my opponent is awful.

We don’t really see the people in this format. Instead, we see a bunch of abstract political positions and theatrical acted personas.

There’s another mode of discourse that involves talking, listening, and Socratic questioning. Perhaps it meanders through suggested topics, but there is no agenda, no script, no timer. The goal is to understand the other, and not merely what they believe but how they arrived at those beliefs, what we might learn from them.

I imagine the latter conversation taking place in armchairs over tea. It doesn’t seem so difficult to put on; in fact, it’s probably cheaper than the highly-produced, highly-branded former version. We certainly have the technology to do it, as well as plentiful examples from the podcasting world of how to create interesting and meaningful long-form dialogue. All that’s left is for the time and inclination of the establishment to align a bit more closely with that of the public.

When I listen to the 80,000 Hours Podcast or Joe Rogan, I’m struck by how much more powerful and substantive these conversational experiences are, compared with the presidential debates. There’s no trace of calcified disgust in my mind as I listen, just open-minded curiosity and an inclination toward optimistic learning.

Even if I don’t agree with what’s said, I respect the participants for their generosity and vulnerability. Opinions become subordinate to character, to our shared humanity, as opposed to its essence (which leads to scorn, derision, and ad hominem headshaking).

I believe there’s much to be gained in a public dialogue-based exploration of a candidate’s intelligence, kindness, compassion, and ability to navigate new and uncertain situations. When AI takes off, aliens land, war breaks out, or the next emergency strikes, don’t we want to know how our leader thinks and acts and converses with peers beyond the petty paper-pushing politics?

The medium is often the message, and with these debates, I fear more harm is done than good. It’s not clear to me where we are moving, as a nation, on a 10-20 year time horizon. Are we fostering long-term progress in any meaningful direction? Or are we diving more frenetically and deeply into a back-and-forth non-committal stagnation?

I want to see someone who sincerely embarks on regular journeys of discovery. Someone who seeks to pose real, important questions to others and themselves as opposed to regurgitating hollow ideological answers. Someone who finds common ground as well as different little islands to claim as their own, without casting dichotomous aspersions on others. Someone whose character and principles and experience I can be engaged with and proud of.

Is there someone I can like and trust, even just a little bit? That’s where my vote will go.

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