Talking politics in our daily interactions may well be critical for health of our democracy, particularly in this age of divisive and controversial races. (Photo by Steve McClanahan)

Thanks to the contentious primary elections, I’m talking about politics more than ever before.

In Manhattan, where I lived for years, everyone I knew was a Democrat, so when elections rolled around, there was nothing to discuss. In 1984, when Ronald Reagan whipped Walter Mondale, my friend Lynne and I walked the dark, silent streets, asking, “Who voted for Reagan?” Even our aging suburban parents were Democrats.

When I moved to Wyoming I found out. Every county had voted for Reagan, giving him a 70 percent landslide. Wary Wyomingites didn’t talk politics with anyone whose views they saw as  suspect — like a former New Yorker — and Democrats huddled in basements to chat, like members of radical cells. A Casper friend, a Southern Baptist, and I still get deep down and dirty about religion, but when I stray toward the P-word, she changes the subject faster than a jackrabbit hops. Once she excused herself with, “You know I’m a Republican?”

In 2008 Democrats didn’t bother campaigning in Wyoming (an organizer gave me a list of Montana voters to call.) But when I moved to Denver, shortly before the election, Obama-Biden signs filled the windows. Perhaps I’d arrived in a more comfortable political landscape, but who would I talk politics with now?

This year, in the midst of a never-ending presidential primary, featuring a slew of unexpected and controversial candidates, I am talking politics with everyone I know, and some people I don’t. In my fifty years as a voter, this is new.

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Last week politics came up in the breakfast room of a Leadville motel with a Pueblo Republican, a school principal on a snowboarding adventure with his son. As CNN rehashed the latest on the TV above the waffle maker, the principal said he just couldn’t do Trump. With a glance at his boy, he said he was worried about the inconsistent Donald’s finger straying near a nuke button. He might vote for Hillary….

When I took my jeans to my Iraqi tailor, an American citizen who happens to be Muslim, I asked him if he planned to vote. “No,” he said, “I don’t get involved in U.S. politics.” “Why did you come to this country if you don’t want to participate in a free society,” I asked. Anxious lines crossed his brow when I warned him that one Republican candidate, Ted Cruz, was advocating patrols in Muslim neighborhoods. “What can they do to me? I have a business … a family. I pay taxes,” he said. He did know that Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in camps after the Pearl Harbor attack. Then we moved on to Middle East politics…

My 90-year-old friend, Evelyn, is a lifelong North Carolina Republican, the widow of a United States District Judge. We usually chat about family and health issues. But this time, before I hung up, I asked, “So are you campaigning for Trump or Cruz?” Evelyn laughed. A fiscal, but not a social conservative, she planned to write in Kasich, no matter who her party nominates. Although my dinner was waiting to get in the oven, we couldn’t resist another hour of lively primary gab. Evelyn had sensible things to say about Hillary vs. Bernie, too.

The next day I phoned a college friend, long involved in politics. “What do you think about this primary stuff?” I asked. An hour later, I knew.  An ardent progressive, Don was surprisingly sanguine about the 2016 outcome; political candidates say whatever they think will help them win, he said, but you can’t know what they’ll do until they get elected. “Take Lyndon Johnson…” He went on to teach me political history I never learned in school.

In the last month I’ve talked politics with complete strangers, a gay Denver friend, another born in Puerto Rico, my New Jersey bond broker, business people, and folks I’ve known for years who began by saying they were sick of politics. And nobody reached for the concealed carry.

By not shying away from a risky argument, we discovered we were closer in views than we thought, maybe because we’re all aware that none of the candidates is flawless. (Even the Bernie Bros at my Capitol Hill caucus wouldn’t swear that, if elected, The Bern could achieve his goals.) Hearing others’ perspectives, it turns out, is useful and helps us feel less alone with our pressing concerns. As Heidi Cruz said in a CNN Town Hall, “It’s not about us, it’s about the country.”

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And no doubt our country is coming into difficult times. More than ever, we need a great leader. We agree that income disparity is a problem — a point Walter Mondale raised in 1984. We face issues about immigration, big banks, student debt, climate change, trade agreements, corporate greed, rising Obamacare premiums, racism, homegrown jihadists, and in Wyoming, lost jobs as shifting markets and environmental policies batter the energy industry. No matter how much you love your gun collection, you cry inside when a child is murdered in school, or shot because he played his radio too loud at a gas station.

As for me, I fan my smoldering coal for Bernie because he isn’t a hawk and has long been committed to equality issues, though I’m not certain that he’s more presidential than Hillary. I have to admit that Donald Trump’s in-your-face declarations aren’t 100 percent wrong. (I agree that we shouldn’t offer developed countries military protection free-of-charge.) And from talking and reading about politics, I’ve learned a lot about primary and caucus procedures — which cry for an overhaul to make them uniform and inclusive. But I’ve been pleased to discover that when ordinary citizens talk about politics we, unlike our elected officials, can “cross the aisle.” And, if you ask me, hope lives there. In fact, sharing views about American politics may be an essential patriotic act.

Most encouraging, when I picked up my shortened jeans, my Iraqi tailor greeted me enthusiastically.

“Vicki,” he announced, “I am going to vote!”

— Vicki Lindner is an Associate Professor Emerita at the University of Wyoming, and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, where she serves on the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee. She is the author of a novel, co-author of Unbalanced Accounts: How Women can Overcome their Fear of Money, and many essays, short stories, magazine and newspaper articles.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact interim editor Matthew Copeland at matthew@wyofile.com.

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  1. Vicki, while I’ve admired your work for years, I have to disagree. I avoid speaking about politics except to people whose political views I already know (including people with whom I disagree strongly). As a college teacher, I have taken pride that unless my students looked up something on line, they would not know my partisan political beliefs or which candidate I was supporting in a particular election. I don’t think it’s worthwhile to speak with strangers about politics; it seems to me a matter of ego. I know that people think differently from me by reading their views online, in newspapers, in magazines, in books. Even during the last five days of the 2014 election, when I was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Wyoming by default and I had come to Jackson from Friday to Wednesday to fulfill the constitutional requirement that I be “an inhabitant. . . when elected” (although I knew I wasn’t going to be elected), I was around town for days and never told anyone I was running for Congress as a Democrat! (My relatives whom I was staying with, Republicans, were the only ones who knew.)

    I too lived in Manhattan in November 1984 and while most of my friends were Democrats, even some of them — yes, in Manhattan — were voting for Reagan. (“For continuity’s sake,” as one Upper West Side neighbor said. Inwardly I rolled my eyes, but outwardly I just smiled and said nothing.)

    Silence is golden.

    1. Hi Richard, Thanks for saying you’ve admired my work for years. I didn’t know ANYBODY did! As the co author of a book about women and money, I also think people should talk about money. But as I tried to suggest in my piece, these aren’t ordinary times. This is the first election, I think, since Eisenhower won the Republican nomination on the third ballot in the ‘fifties that a candidate without political experience (i.e. the real estate developer,Trump), will win the nomination of his party. And then you have Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist, who some think will immediately turn the country into a communist state. In any case, because the mistaken assumptions of the established political parties, their misconception about their electorates, their way of doing business, and the candidates running are so culturally different than in the past, I think that to sit around chatting about the weather or the latest novel when you could be finding out what others think and why, not to mention what they know, is to reject the very premise of democracy, as it is not to vote. A class is a good place to teach the art of respectful listening and debate.( At the Denver caucus I attended we were supposed to try to convince each other of our varying points of view, but there were so many hundreds of people in our precinct room it was impossible to breathe much less speak convincingly.) I think the country is moving away from establishment politics, maybe the two- party system, and people are questioning the procedures, as well as the candidates as never before. We could all benefit from exchanges of information on “slogans” being bandied about,as well as opinions. For instance, the whole business of Trade Bills is enormously complex. I read a piece about this in the NY Times which I could not understand. It is very easy for all of us to succumb to candidates'”talking points” and our own mistaken ideas about what they mean for us. Silence may be golden, but not right now.

  2. You’ve both got to be kidding, face the facts the whole world is laughing at our political disparity. We have no visions from these candidates on the true future for the people of this Nation.. Look no further than the front window of Wyoming, currently our Congress Candidates, most lawyers don’t offer much, same old spill on current issues. There is no one who has the courage to tell people the real truth, or offer an optimistic common sense to solve the situations, with no visions, and goals to reach task need to achieve the solutions. We need huge overhauls in our government, but our people are complacent and have apathy, they would rather avoid the true issues they are the problem, for they are dependent upon entitlements, not their patriotic act of freedom of choice, for they follow as if sheep to the herders and border collies of their parties… That is why most people don’t value a primary, for just look at Wyoming and a primary, a person votes a party ticket to chose a candidate, when it should be an open primary. A person votes for all candidates and parties, then selections are made on the whole, not the few… Would it work, who knows for neither party has the courage to truly act on patriotic act, now do they!!

  3. Earl, See, I’ve got you talking about politics, too! “Income disparity” is not an issue unless you are on the wrong end of the disparate stick. Like the Wyoming coal workers who just lost their jobs…. Vicki Lindner

  4. So you are feeling the Bern. I certainly am not! Sanders would move this country further toward socialism which I definitely do not favor. As for income disparity, that is a necessary part of capitalism. If you eliminate income disparity, you destroy capitalism. I do agree we need to overhaul the caucus system and go to a statewide primary.