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Nathan Ryan: It’s Time to Take Our Debates Offline

“Scoring a rhetorical win or dunking on somebody on the Internet doesn't solve a problem,” the GoodPolitics co-founder writes

Nathan Ryan is the CEO of Austin-based consulting firm Blue Sky Partners, a co-founder of GoodPolitics and a commissioner on Austin’s Economic Prosperity Commission and the Urban Transportation Commission. He’s written about the importance of local politics for Tribeza and elsewhere, including a piece on Proposition D and the recent May election and the importance of participating in local politics

I have an unpopular opinion in today’s hyper-partisan political climate: it’s worth your time and energy to get to know people whose political views you oppose. I believe curiosity and empathy are how we build better politics—even with those whose views we can’t begin to understand.

There are limits to this, of course. But my view comes from the experience of growing up in a relatively strict religious environment. While not as strict as some, growing up I wasn’t allowed to read certain books, watch certain TV shows or movies or listen to certain music, mostly for ideological reasons.

I was that kid in high school who stood up to challenge the biology teacher’s lesson on evolution, arguing that a literal seven-day creation should be taught as well. I was that kid who stood up in English class to oppose someone else choosing Harry Potter as the subject of their book report because it taught witchcraft. I literally did those things.

If I spoke to somebody with a different worldview or faith than mine, I didn’t do so to learn about their experiences, understand why they believe what they believe or try to empathize with their position. If I spoke to somebody with a different worldview or faith than mine, I did so with the sole aim of trying to learn their arguments so I could convert them.

Photo by Megan Markham Bucknall

At some point, though, that became exhausting. While I would still consider myself a Christian, my faith has evolved in a way that compels me to have genuine empathy for and curiosity about other people.

Which brings me to today: In 2020, 47 percent of Americans regularly attended a church, synagogue or mosque, which is down 20 points from 2000. The number of Americans who say they don’t believe in God continues to rise.

Human beings are spiritual creatures—we crave meaning and we’ll look everywhere to find it. In the absence of traditional religious institutions, we look to pop culture and politics for purpose. If you’ve followed my work for even a short amount of time, you know I think civic engagement is incredibly important in a democracy—if people aren’t showing up to vote and weigh in on important issues, our representative government is a myth. More civic engagement is good, period.

Human beings are spiritual creatures—we crave meaning and we’ll look everywhere to find it.

We’ve been through a lot over the last year here in Austin: COVID-19, blatant racism, police brutality and unrest, a presidential election, insurrection, Texas freeze, municipal May election, Texas legislative session. We’ve seen the best and the worst of humanity through it all.

With everything going on and a pandemic forcing our conversations online, we’ve dug even more deeply to our ideological corners. We’ve spent so much time honing our arguments, so much time having rhetorical political battles in virtual public spaces, I fear the conversation’s become so abstract as to have become ethereal, religious and philosophical, rather than tactile.

But while some may be more existential than others, these problems we’ve faced over the last year are anything but philosophical. Political and policy choices produce real-world outcomes. Scoring a rhetorical win or dunking on somebody on the Internet doesn’t solve a problem.

One year ago this week, the United States passed 110,000 COVID-19 deaths. As of this writing, the number is hovering right around 600,000, including more than 50,000 Texans. These numbers are nearly impossible to comprehend and the pain for those of us who’ve lost someone during the pandemic is unbearable. The process of coming to terms with this pandemic is something that will last a generation. But we will – and must – move forward.

As I write this, I feel a glimmer of hope and excitement, sitting at Radio in South Austin, drinking a beer in the sunshine. The U.S. has just reported that 44.2 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated—the number is 51 percent in Travis County.

COVID-19 cases and deaths are dropping, the world is reopening, people are able to see one another again, and this momentary bliss has me hoping that we’ll do what so many called for throughout the pandemic—refuse to go back to the old, inequitable normal.

I hope we use this reopening to make some real changes in the way we see each other, work with and on each other’s behalf. I hope we take our arguments offline and outside. And I hope some of us who couldn’t have imagined it happening last year, break down barriers and become friends. Or at least roll up our sleeves to work together towards real solutions.

This isn’t a call for “Kumbaya” or for people to stop having firm beliefs. I’m certainly not going to stop advocating for what I believe in. This reopening, however, is a call for us to have hard conversations, work towards reconciliation and redemption and build new coalitions where we can find common ground—because it’s there and it’s real.