Finding Common Ground in an Era of Polarized Politics

By John Gregory | 11/04/19 7:30 AM

Can two whip-smart western Kentucky natives with differing political views and a gift for gab change the nature of civic discourse in America?

They just might.

Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers met in college, became lawyers, then moms, and now are hosts of the popular podcast Pantsuit Politics. They’re also authors of the new book “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations.” They appeared on KET’s Connections to share simple ways to have more thoughtful conversations about the big issues facing the nation today.


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’Unfiltered’ Conversations about Issues that Matter

The podcast hosts became friends as sorority sisters at Transylvania University: Holland grew up in Paducah and Silvers was raised on a western Kentucky dairy farm. After college, Holland went to law school and into Democratic Party politics in Washington; Silvers also became an attorney and went into human resources for a Cincinnati law firm.

When Holland moved back home to raise her family, she began a parenting blog and asked Silvers, who was also on maternity leave at that time, to contribute. Her posts were so well received that Holland asked Silvers if she wanted to collaborate on a political podcast.

“I said, ‘What is a podcast?’” jokes Silvers.

At first Silvers was reluctant to share her personal views, fearing how her employer and her clients might react if they knew of her conservative values. But she was intrigued by the idea of having honest, heart-felt conversations about politics and public policy – conversations where two people from different ideological viewpoints could be themselves. That type of programming would be unique, they thought.

“We really launched Pantsuit Politics because we didn’t see the type of political conversations we wanted to have out in the national media,” says Holland.

“We just understood from the beginning if we filtered us, there’s no point in doing it,” says Silvers. “If people want to listen to something different, we have to be ourselves, and that’s really been our guiding light from the beginning. “

’Fear is Not a Value’

Since launching Pantsuit Politics in late 2015, the women have discussed immigration, Confederate monuments, steel tariffs, net neutrality, gun violence, Medicaid, criminal justice, female political leaders, LGBTQ rights, the Mueller investigation, impeachment, and much more. As the podcast has grown in popularity, the duo has taken their show on the road for a national tour of live-audience events and an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

In the course of their conversations, Holland and Silvers both say they’ve shifted their positions on certain issues. Silvers says she once supported eligibility requirements for Social Security, but now she thinks lawmakers should shore up the existing system rather than limit access to it. Holland says she’s come to see flaws in the welfare system that she thinks need to be addressed even while she supports maintaining the social safety net.

“I think people often come to the podcast and they see ‘bipartisan’ and they want us to either disagree all the time or fulfill that partisan talking point,” says Holland. “That’s not what we do… We’re really trying to have conversations about values, not talking points.”

In fact, too many political debates are rooted in fear, according to Silvers. She says fear is not a value but rather is an emotional response. She says the recent Canadian elections provided a powerful example of how the use of fear played into both sides of the environmental debate in that country.

“There‘s economic fear on one side and fear of planetary collapse on the other side,” says Silvers. “What’s a value behind the economic fear? I worry about my neighbors and their ability to support their families. On the planetary collapse side, I want to be a good steward of this earth. Those are values, so when you start to name those values, it’s really helpful.”

Holland says another way to step back from fear to think about what outcomes you want from a certain policy action, instead of focusing on the things you fear might happen. She also encourages people to be willing to acknowledge the flaws in a policy they generally favor, like how she feels about welfare.

“We’re in this fear mindset that If I admit something’s wrong with it, it will all get taken away,” says Holland. “You can’t have a conversation from that perspective.”

Another pitfall in political discourse is the zero-sum game – that if you gain something, I will lose something. Silvers says that view can come from taking too narrow a view of an issue. For example, she says providing more grant money to African American female entrepreneurs may mean some white business owners may not have the same grant opportunities in the short term. But she says if we take the long view, then we can see that everyone can benefit when minority-owned businesses are a robust part of a thriving economy.

“If we broaden it out to look at full picture, often it’s a win across the board,” says Silvers.

Avoiding Conflict at Family Gatherings

Mostly the podcasters want people to recognize the dignity and fundamental value of their fellow Americans even in the midst of contentious political debates.

“It has to go deeper than civility, says Silvers. “Just being nice to each other is not going to get it done.”

That’s why in their new book, Holland and Silvers advocate for what they call “grace-filled conversations.”

“Grace is a way into those disagreements with the idea that we might not ever find space for compromise, but we can still treat each other as people who both love America,” says Silvers. “We don’t have to assume the worst in each other just because we fall on different sides of some really important dividing lines.”

“Us against them… is not a grace-filled way to approach a political conversation,” adds Holland.

The women encourage people to take that perspective of grace into discussions that may arise at family gatherings this holiday season. Silvers says the goal of those interactions should be to learn about the other person’s position, not persuade them to adopt yours.

“We don’t have to emerge from the Thanksgiving table with draft legislation, we don’t have to get up and all agree on who we’re voting for,” says Silvers. “What we want to do is have these conversations to enrich ourselves and each other.”

If the conversation does get heated, Holland says it’s okay to ask to continue the dialogue at a later time.

“Sometimes you can say, I’m really upset, you’re really upset,” says Holland. “It was important to me to hear from you, I learned some things, but let’s take a break and maybe we can pick this up again some other time.”

When the disagreement centers on the basic facts of an issue, Silvers says a homework assignment may be in order. She suggests having the two parties peruse the opposing side’s preferred newspapers for a week, and then come back to continue the conversation with that new perspective. (She recommends avoiding social media or cable television news, which can overplay certain issues and policy points in an effort to fill time and boost audiences.)

Even if you disagree on a certain policy, Holland says it’s important to learn that everybody has a place in civic debate. She uses the analogy of driving a car: one person may be the gas and the other person may be the brakes, but it takes both to make the car operate properly. Plus, in the process of being open to other viewpoints, Holland says we get to learn more about ourselves.

“When you’re in a position where you’re curious about the other person and you’re having to explain your values and your perspective, you understand yourself better,” says Holland. “It gives you such a better depth of understanding about what’s important to you.”