Emotions are running high as we reach the end of the presidential campaign. During this campaign, which has often focused on character rather than policy, we have become wrapped up in how our own character may be wrapped up in our voting decisions in what Joshua Rothman describes as “moral synecdoche.” That is, to take a part (e.g., voting for Trump) for a whole (being a bad person).

In order to continue to live our daily lives and have cordial social interactions, many of us are actively avoiding or limiting participation in political discussions.

Yet, engaging in political discourse is an important action of citizenship, too important to drop. It is through engaging in political discourse that we are able to see others’ perspectives, challenge our assumptions, and come to new understandings. In these last few days before the election, I encourage you to try to have at least one politically based discussion with an individual whose ideas may be different from your own.

Here are some tips for engaging in civil civic discourse:

Identify a point of agreement. Twentieth-century rhetoricians Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca note that a shared understanding is foundational for any argument on contentious matters to be productive. Perhaps you are in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act while your neighbor champions Obamacare as the best thing ever.

Dig deeper — can you both agree, for instance, that rising premiums are a problem that needs to be fixed? Or that coverage options for individuals with pre-existing conditions need to be continued and protected?

Even if you and your neighbor disagree on many details, finding one point of agreement can anchor your debate and pave the way for more possibilities of mutually agreeable solutions.

Label logical fallacies. It can be frustrating to attempt a discussion with someone whose arguments seem to be inherently flawed.

If you and your impromptu debate opponent are equally invested in the conversation, you can both work to build valid support for your claims, rather than rely on faulty logic. Luckily for all of us, you need not be an expert of philosophy and rhetoric in order to avoid logical fallacies. In this information age, there are interactive apps and a myriad of resources that can help us identify and avoid defending our points with problematic reasoning.

Explore limits of support. So maybe you don’t care that Donald Trump did not pay income taxes, and maybe your friend doesn’t care about Hillary Clinton’s personal email included classified content.

Don’t talk about those things — instead, ask each other questions like, “What would it take for you to withdraw support from that candidate?” and “About what issues do you disagree with that candidate?” Such questions can lead to a more honest and open exploration of your discussion partner’s and your own political positions, rather than trying to be a spokesperson for a campaign.

Finally, remember that the most important political action you can take will be on Nov. 8 at your designated polling place: Go vote!

An English professor at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2014, Elizabeth Powers teaches introductory and advanced writing courses, and coordinates a writing lab which allows her to work individually with students on their writing skills. Powers’ scholarly focus is on Rhetoric and Composition, especially rhetorical theory, visual rhetoric, and writing center studies.


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