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Revealed: The Rules of Civilized Debate

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Stakes will be high when Californians vote in the primary polls on March 3, three months earlier than in the 2016 presidential race.

And tensions will be high, too — at home, at work or over dinner. The wrong word or a political joke, and a pleasant evening could be ruined.

So how will friends and families avoid such bear traps over the holiday season? Mark A. Peterson, professor of public policy, political science and law at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, believes it is possible to have a civilized conversation about politics with people outside your bubble.

Political discussion, the professor says, is all about civil discourse — something that’s perhaps forgotten during election fever, when political divides deepen.

A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic magazine suggests that 45 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans would be unhappy if their child married someone from the opposite party.

And, according to a PRRI poll, fewer than 40 percent of respondents said there were political divisions in their family, suggesting that 60 percent of people may be losing the habit of talking to others who disagree with them in informal or safe settings. So how do we talk politics?

Peterson has some rules that might help lower the temperature during social gatherings.

Unlike the candidates, the first rule is to forget about “winning.”

He advises to make it more of a discussion than a debate. “We’re really caught up in this ‘us versus them’ world. But we can all take part in civil discourse without giving up our principles or self-respect,” he says.

Secondly, focus on understanding. “Listening is one of the most powerful instruments for getting someone to start taking you more seriously,” Peterson says, “and for you to start taking them more seriously.”

Finally, follow these simple two words: Be kind. “Being kind extends to the people you disagree with,” the professor says. “That effort builds a deeper connection and allows a constructive sharing of ideas.” 

So, as Californians keep their famous chill during the run-up to the March 3 primary, what could be the result? 

One possibility is a mass culling of candidates as never before. When the union’s most populous state had its say in June 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump were the clear front-runners.

Peterson says that the number of states voting on so-called Super Tuesday — 14, including Texas — will make it complicated, but “California will get more attention and be part of this larger story.”

An alternate scenario could see California become less of a deciding factor and more akin to a turbo boost for a nominee who stands out in other early primary states. Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina will all vote before California.

But in all of these states, the professor says, the challenge will be the same: How do we talk politics without getting mired in disagreement? It’s a skill.

In 2016, Clinton won the Golden State’s Democratic vote by 7 percentage points over Bernie Sanders. She took the cities and, more controversially, the superdelegates; he dominated in suburban and rural areas. This season will generate its own surprises and anxieties. One can only hope to drink from the political pool both responsibly and generously.