Periodically, I get messages from readers of this blog, or encounter essays and columns in mainstream publications with the same, urgent theme: Americans need to work on understanding each other. Those of us to the left of the reactionary right need to be more generous in our appraisals of those with whom we disagree. We need to find a common ground from which we can build productive dialogue.
For the greater part of my professional life, that message strongly resonated with me. During the thirty-plus years I was an active Republican, most of my friends and family were Democrats, and I was keenly aware of the unfairness of dismissing all Republicans as rightwing racists and anti-Semites. (Yes, the roots of Trumpism have always been visible in the GOP, but those attitudes were once relegated to the fringes, just as “fellow-travelers” were sidelined by the Democrats.)
When I became the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I launched a publication called Common Ground, dedicated to the proposition that good people could have different, principled approaches to public policy, and that organizations dedicated to support of the Constitution and Bill of Rights needed to demonstrate that America’s legal framework respects those differences.
More generally, both as a woman and a Jew, I have seen firsthand how damaging and unfair it can be to “other” those who are different, to judge and dismiss people based on their identities.
All of which brings me to my unprecedented discomfort with the contemporary, well-intentioned pleas to “understand” the people on the “other side” of the political divide.
At risk of running afoul of Godwin’s Law, I want to pose a question: How do we now evaluate the behavior of the “good Germans” who failed to condemn the behavior of the Nazis?
An old book review from Forbes —by none other than “conservative” Steve Forbes–detailed the various reasons why Germans who weren’t Nazis nevertheless “went along” with Hitler. Forbes found the book, The German War, to be “an extremely interesting yet disheartening tale of a civilized people’s descent into barbarism.”
Much of the collaboration was “patriotic.”
A number of German soldiers and officials were uneasy or outright horrified by what was happening, but most did nothing about it. All but a handful of non-Nazis supported the war to the end because they believed defeat would lead to Germany’s annihilation..Most Germans convinced themselves that the war was one of self-defense, a fight for survival, because the evil French, Russians, British and Americans and their “Jewish masters” all wanted to destroy Germany…
Germans also engaged in moral equivalence: The bombing of German cities by the U.S. and Britain was in retaliation for the Reich’s treatment of Jews, but what was happening in the death camps and shooting pits was really no different from the Allies’ “terror” bombings.
Survival of the “real” (Ayran) Germany. False equivalencies. Unsettlingly familiar…
Obviously, not all of the people who continue to call themselves Republicans are racists prepared to acquiesce to barbarism. The GOP continues to contain plenty of good, moral people–and I agree that we should continue to look for them, and when we encounter them, “reach out” and engage and make good-faith efforts to understand where they are and why they remain.
But the majority of today’s GOP is another matter entirely. We have steadily mounting evidence of its march toward reaction, racism and yes, barbarism. Former high-level Republicans who have left the party warn that elected officials like Paul Gosar , Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and a significant number of other “deplorables” (sorry!) are now the mainstream of the GOP. They really do reflect and represent the people who voted them into office.
I submit that seeking “common ground” with such people is suicidal–that there is a monumental and morally-significant difference between debates over such things as the efficacy of tariffs or the contours of the social safety net and arguments over the human rights of people who don’t look like us.
Yes, it is important to understand why people react to cultural change or economic disadvantage in such irrational and destructive ways. Such understanding is necessary in order to fashion policies to minimize the dangers such reactions pose.
But that’s a long-term goal.
In the shorter term, it is critically important that we highlight the immorality and profoundly anti-American nature of what political observers are witnessing–not because doing so will change those who are lost to logic and human connection, but because failure to do so will lull the many “good Americans” who haven’t been paying attention into quiescence.
Ultimately, it isn’t the “bad guys” who threaten American values. It’s the “good guys” who remain unaware and/or disengaged. “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing…..”