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Today in the Mayonnaise Clinic: how to have useful conversations
It's my job, so let me tell you how I approach it
Usually, I’m going to provide short-ish answers to several letters each week. But reader Travis Donnell wrote in with a question that invites a long answer, and we’ve heard versions of this question from other readers too.
Here’s what he asked:
In the last several years of Left, Right & Center, one of the things that has always impressed me about your approach to panels, interviews, and general discussions is how well you strike a balance between putting forth your own theory of the case, while also encouraging the other parties to express their positions freely and openly. This is done without (usually) evoking anger/impatience from either yourself or others… How have you developed this skill, and do you have any suggestions for how to introduce a little temperance into our own discussions at home with family and friends?
I share your view that we got this better on LRC than most other shows do (and we intend to continue to excel at this on the Very Serious podcast). This is something I think about a lot, and obviously the right approach depends on the context — not everything about approaching a talk show is transferrable to your Thanksgiving dinner table, but some of it is.
Partly, I have learned through trial and error, but I also think I have benefited from a more intentional approach around these issues than some other hosts take. My view about audio is similar to my view about this newsletter — the show is a success if it informs or persuades. To inform or persuade, the guests have to have disagreements with each other and the audience, they have to understand where the other side is coming from, and they have to approach that gap in good faith.
Before I address how you can use them in civilian life, let me lay out some of the principles that drive how Sara and I have selected guests, topics, beats and questions for LRC and now for the Very Serious podcast. We see these as necessary conditions for a conversation that’s pleasant to listen to and leaves listeners smarter than when they arrived.1
You need to have a disagreement over an issue that matters. A lot of cable news panels fail this test — they’ll be having a conversation about Donald Trump featuring three Democrats and a Republican whose entire personality consists of hating Donald Trump. Have you ever learned anything by watching one of these panels? On LRC, we strived to have panelists who reflected the actually existing range of public opinion on the issues we talked about, or at least who had real disagreement over those issues. Very Serious is a little looser: we’re not producing a left-right conversation each week, but we’ll be making sure the panelists aren’t just agreeing on everything.
Sara adds: Anyone who’s listened to LRC knows there’s plenty of agreement on that show. That’s important, not just because no one wants to hear an hour of pure disagreement; that would be too manufactured. What we try to do is contrast the areas of agreement with the areas of disagreement. Josh is particularly great at this, and when you have panelists who are down for it — see the next bullet point — that’s when you produce something people can learn from.
You need to discuss the actual nexus of the disagreement in good faith. Unfortunately, during the Trump era, it was very challenging to achieve both this bullet and the prior one. Trump took the Republican Party with him but got a surprisingly small fraction of the conservative commentariat. The anti-Trump rump has gotten airtime vastly disproportionate to its influence, but most of the pro-Trump pundits are full of shit. It’s a huge problem for the discussion format (and it has been for seven years).
Sara adds: The left has a similar problem to a lesser extent. None of our Left panelists on LRC were like this, but certainly there are quite a few progressive commentators whose entire policy view was either formed in opposition to Donald Trump and the GOP, or eclipsed by it during the Trump era. Sort of on the theme Josh wrote about last week, believing Republicans can be owned by disqualification is detached from reality, and if you insist on saying so, you’re trying to shut down debate rather than engage in it. That’s a dead end. (And a total drag to listen to, by the way.)
Choose topics and panelists that allow you to achieve both of these goals. This was our main strategy on LRC through the Trump era: talk less about Trump and more about the ideas and issues that motivated his rise. These include immigration restriction, trade restriction, controversies over crime and policing, resentment of experts and elites, hostility to “political correctness,” and (in the last two years) opposition to various kinds of public health restrictions and interventions. Panelists like Tim Carney and Michael Brendan Dougherty are not broadly pro-Trump, but a panel with them could cover most important news events during Trump’s time while adequately reflecting the actual spectrum of opinion about those events.
Pick topics your panelists have something interesting to say about, or pick panelists who have something interesting to say about the topics you’ve chosen. This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often radio and TV discussion shows don’t abide by it. If you’re locked into your panelists for one reason or another and they’re not going to be any good talking about China, don’t. China will still be there next week.
Remember you’re at work and the show is a work product. How do I keep my emotions in check on the show? Well, one thing is that I’m a pretty level guy. It’s also not my job to get angry, and it’s not even my job to “win” the argument we might be having on that episode. Listeners want to hear a conversation that is interesting and informative, and I’m there to make that happen — it’s a profession, and I have to be professional. It’s also important to book panelists who have this in the back of their minds, even when they’re passionate about the issues we’re discussing. Which brings me to…
Don’t book assholes. This also sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying: If you want to have a conversation that’s “civilized yet provocative,” you need people who are willing and able to do that.
Sara adds: I need to double down on this and say that a politics podcast is no place to be a jerk. Professionally, I have a zero-tolerance policy on this. Of course, try not be a jerk when you’re talking about politics “for fun,” and I’ll be the first to admit that uh, I have a less-than-perfect record on this. Lots of people like to talk to me about politics (emphasis on talk to me) and sometimes I still lose my cool when the conditions described above are not in place. One annoying thing about being a producer and editor is that when a real-life conversation starts to go south, you start thinking about how you could fix it in post by editing out the bad parts. This isn’t possible in real life, so fix it when you have the chance.
As for discussions in your personal life, some of these points apply in one way or another. Try to talk with people about political issues they care about and have something interesting to say about, and where at least one of you stands to learn something from the other. Argue in good faith, acknowledge what the other person’s argument actually is, and try to find exactly where you disagree and why. Don’t have conversations about topics that are boring, or where you’ll just have an unproductive shouting match.
And one of these points applies much more strongly in personal life than it does on a podcast or radio show: You don’t need to talk about everything. Politics is interesting and important and it’s a perfectly reasonable subject for conversation. But your personal political conversations are very unlikely to constitute activism in a meaningful sense, so don’t feel obligated to have them if you’re not enjoying them.
People who talk a lot about politics when they’re off the clock are often bores. If you’re interested in sports or art or cooking or religion or business or science, try to have more conversations about that. It may get your blood pressure lower and help you achieve greater “temperance” in your personal conversations.
And that goes for the rest of you, too.
Very seriously yours,
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