How to Talk About Politics… Without Letting It Turn Ugly


Getty Images

Jane Coaston, host of the New York Times podcast The Argument, shares how to best approach political debates


In a deeply divided America, discussions about politics can often lead to heated debates, social media rants — and sometimes, even the end of a relationship with a friend or loved one. On other occasions, these types of conversations are avoided altogether.

It’s probably no surprise that talking politics ranks low on the public’s comfort list. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, just 17% say they would be very comfortable talking politics with someone they don’t know well, while 35% say they would feel somewhat comfortable.

But a New York Times podcast explores how to address thorny issues head-on in a more constructive way. First launched in 2018 after an acrimonious election cycle, The Argument began with a mission of modeling civil disagreement. Its new host — Jane Coaston — now carries on the torch to help make political conversations more productive by encouraging open-minded debates. 

“This is not a space where people can just get their takes out — it’s important to know that you’re going to be interrogated on what this looks like,” Coaston told KCM. “You’re going to have to answer some questions and you’re going to have to examine your own viewpoints.”

Formerly a senior political reporter at Vox, Coaston has spent years reporting on conservatism and the American right, talking to people on various points of the political spectrum. This experience led her to notice a theme — a lack of understanding and even demonization of the other side. In reality, Coaston thinks political beliefs are much more nuanced than they appear on the surface, while points of disagreement don’t always follow along traditional party lines. 

“We only see sometimes the ghosts of someone else’s politics,” Coaston said. “We see the version of it that’s dictated in our own bubble.”

Having a productive conversation about politics isn’t as hard as you might think these days. Coaston recommends starting out by simply asking a question. “You can have a conversation about literally anything if you start out by asking people questions,” she said. 

Obviously, Coaston isn’t the first one to make such a suggestion —  after all, there is a psychological component to politics. Political psychologists have similarly advised starting out by asking questions instead of immediately jumping to conclusions. 

“Self-awareness is key and then trying to challenge those basic assumptions,” said psychologist Ashley Milspaw. “Ask questions instead of immediately seeing another person as a threat.”

Another hurdle when it comes to polarization is the lack of context — the immediacy of social media means that people don’t always wait to see the whole story before helping to spread it. A 2016 study found that six out of 10 people will share a link to an article without reading it. 

Then there’s the lack of media education, an issue that has become the subject of some debate in recent years. A number of nonprofits — such as Boston-based Media Literacy Now — have cropped up, working to spread more media comprehension and pushing for the introduction of media literacy in schools.

“Sometimes what we all do is we take a piece of information and we backfill to make it make sense with our own political ideology,” Coaston said. “And we see that all the time, but we don’t recognize it when we do it, but we can see it all the time when our opposition does it.”

But the current political climate isn’t all bad. Coaston believes politics remains, as it has long been, “intensely personal,” but that’s also how “these issues actually work.” 

“People who are entirely disconnected from a debate debating about it just seems pointless to me,” she said. 

The Argument is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher. 

Written and reported by Tess Bonn.