There is an old saying, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” It is often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, although there is no evidence that she ever said it. It is on a plaque in my house because it was one of my mother-in-law’s favorite sayings.
I thought about that over the last few weeks. I don’t know how it was for you, but this past election season was horrible in our neck of the woods. We had to turn off our phone because politicians are exempt from the no-call list. We couldn’t stop the mailers.
I received a mailer from one candidate which made the following argument: I should vote for this candidate because the other candidate had made a poor advertisement. I’m not kidding. There was no mention of any platform; in fact, the candidate did not make a single positive argument for casting the ballot for anyone. No, I was to vote against the other candidate because the camera angle on one advertisement was awkward. You can’t make this stuff up.
I know discussing politics is dangerous, because we live in this polarized anger- and hate-filled world, right? I am not so sure. I have made many investments over the course of my career, and the best ones are always when my team and I have been able to discern a truth which is counter to the current perception. Are we really as polarized as the media claims? I think the answer depends. Are we talking about ideas, events, or people?
Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to return to my boarding school in Indiana for a gathering of alumni volunteers who help the school across the country. One of my classmates was there from Colorado, and we had a great conversation while catching up.
He and I see the world completely differently, at least that is what the pollsters who try to pigeon-hole everyone into a data point would tell you. I believe that it is pretty accurate to say that come election day we would cancel out each other’s vote on most occasions. This notwithstanding, we did what nobody is supposed to do: we discussed politics…and it was great. How is this possible?
We kept our discussion about ideas, not people. When two people do this I believe they will find exactly what we did, which is that what we have in common far outweighs our differences. I know that goes against what the media would have everyone believe, but it is a fact. When one takes away the team colors and the divisive personalities, the vast majority of us get along very well. It also helped that we both kept in mind that even when we disagreed, the fact remains that we are friends, and in this case have been for more than 30 years. Isn’t that more important than winning an argument?
I know it happens every election because of the calendar, but for some reason, this year’s election being followed by Veterans Day seemed especially appropriate. Maybe because it is the one-hundredth year of the armistice that ended World War I, which occurred at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Maybe it is because with all of our differences, veterans have a way of reminding us how fortunate we are to live in a free country, and that freedom is never free.
The issue with our politics is not that we are polarized; it is that our political discourse has become almost solely about people, not about events, and certainly not about ideas. Change the level of discourse and we can change the atmosphere. That has to start from the ground up. I’m willing to give it a go, and I hope you all will too.
Chuck Osborne, CFA