I finally got around to reading “Healing the Heart of Democracy” by Parker Palmer yesterday, and was struck by his observation that it isn’t disagreement that makes our politics so contentious–it is demonization.
Back in the day, as they say, I remember Dick Lugar responding to challenges by saying “That’s an issue upon which people of good faith can differ.” By the time he was attacked by Tea Party purists, that simple recognition–that otherwise good people can differ in their analysis of a situation–had become heresy in some precincts.
When we de-humanize those who disagree with us, we make conversation–and conversion–impossible. I’ll grant that some folks are so rigid, so afraid to consider facts that might be contrary to their own worldview, that reasonable debate is not possible. (As a friend of mine used to say, you can’t reason someone out of a position they never reasoned themselves into.) But those tend to be folks on the fringe. When we write off everyone on the other side of an issue, we abandon any possibility of productive discourse.
Alexander Hamilton addressed this very human tendency in Federalist #1: “So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy….In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”
Later in that same essay, he points out that partisans are unlikely to sway others to their opinions or to increase the “number of their converts” by the “loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invective.”
As difficult as it may be in an era positively dominated by invective and loudness, those of us who care about the conduct of public affairs need to work on substituting vigorous but respectful disagreement for demonization. Otherwise, the public square will be entirely dominated by the “true believers” of all sorts who are so vested in labeling and attacking that they cannot participate in anything remotely resembling democratic discourse.
In an era where every ideologue claims fidelity to the Founders, maybe we should actually listen to one.