Other lazy rhetorical devices plague our political discourse. But there is something especially grating about a candidate calling for a “conversation” when asked about an issue. It rings with the echo of empty ideas. It emanates the stench of platitude and prudence. The abstractness of the language renders the sentiment meaningless: Who, exactly, should be having these conversations? Where should they be taking place, and on what terms?
The truth is that when politicians are pleading for a national conversation, it is usually because they are trying to avoid one. Sometimes they use the phrase as they are revving up to deliver a righteous stump speech. (Fair enough, though it’s worth noting that if you’re the only one talking, and your mind is made up, that is by definition not a “conversation.”) More often, they are trying to dodge a specific policy question that’s politically tricky: See Senator Kamala Harris of California—asked whether she agrees with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont that felons should be able to vote from prison—responding, “I think we should have that conversation.”
The conversation-centric approach to politics may best be embodied by Marianne Williamson, the author and self-help guru running a long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination. Williamson spent much of last week’s primary debate chastising her opponents for getting too bogged down in policy details. “Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk,” she declared. “He’s not going to be beaten just [by] somebody who has plans.” What secret weapon would she turn to instead? “I’m going to harness love for political purposes.”