Worthwhile Reminders

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.


  1. I just wanted to point out Dick Lugar was attacked by more than “tea party purists.” Establishment Hoosier Republicans were also unhappy with him. He voted from a house where he hadn’t lived since the 1970s. He refused to come back to Indiana for Republican Lincoln Day Dinners. He refused to help out Indiana Republican candidates. When he would have his picture taken with some GOP candidates, those candidates would receive a letter forbidding the candidate from using the joint picture in campaign and fundraising materials. (Like that was enforceable.) On the rare occasions when Lugar came back to Indiana, he stayed in hotels. Many of the newer state and county GOP leaders had never even met him. That’s why Lugar lost the primary, not his more moderate views. Lugar had no one to blame but himself for that primary loss. It was entirely avoidable.

  2. The observations about Mr. Lugar notwithstanding, the posting was right on. It takes work to understand someone, but it’s easier to de-humanize them. It seems to me that democracy is about doing the work.

  3. The Framers of the Constitution are often cited for construction of the document they created in 1787. Also, as here, they are quoted (particularly Hamilton and Madison, rarely Jay because his contribution was quantitatively less) from The Federalist Papers. I do so myself. It is important to remember the men themselves to place their writings in perspective. Hamilton wrote vicious, often personal attacks, of political opponents. His duel with Aaron Burr, although his last, was not his first, because of those attacks. At the same time as he advocated an almost monarchical government, he was one of the most passionate spokesmen (women were excluded from the public discourse, at least at the convention) against the institution of slavery. My point is neither to praise Hamilton (although I would cherish his baseball card, as it were) nor to bury him, but to say keep The Framers’ words in perspective. People often speculate on what Washington said before crossing the Delaware. According to several accounts, he addressed General Henry “Ox” Knox: “Want to sit you fat ass down Henry? You’re going to swamp the boat.” If we realize these were people, it helps to understand the imperfections of our system and the sometimes hypocritical nature of what they wrote.

  4. The assertion that one side “de-humanizes” the other has become shopworn; this is the third article I’ve read this year with that meme. The phrase injects emotion into mere differences of opinion.

    For example, among those of us who opposed Mr Lugar’s re-election, we didn’t question whether he was a good parent, or if he beat his dog. Lugar hadn’t lived in Indiana in ages, but then pretended to establish residence at the family farm – a location that does not have any habitable structures. To me that’s reason enough to reject a candidate, if they can’t even bother to live in the locale they represent. To some people, by holding this viewpoint I am “demonizing” Mr Lugar, but by that rationale, I shouldn’t oppose anyone’s candidacy.

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