Fixing Political Discourse
We have bad politics and we deserve — and certainly need — better.
We need discourse that doesn’t descend into ad hominem attacks. We need to discuss politics like adults capable of rational thought and capable of accepting the merits of opposing sides and dissecting their arguments for elements of truth.
This is a call for politics of respectability.
As the political system has descended into party polarization not seen since the Civil War Era, loyal partisans (and voters loyal to certain candidates) refuse to accept the legitimacy of opposition. Liberals ignore conservative arguments; conservatives immediately dismiss liberal thought. And it’s easy to see why: both sides spend immense time, money, and political capital on attacking the other and portraying their viewpoints as “un-American” or otherwise illegitimate.
But when parties and politicians attempt solely to discredit opposition, compromise becomes impossible, gridlock ensues, and partisan strife makes its way through the nation. Assuming the opposing side has a hostile motive premised on “undermining America” or serving only elite interests naturally makes unity impossible. Why would you work with a party or leader who wanted to destroy America? You wouldn’t. But that only inhibits functioning government. Two chambers of Congress and a president armed with a veto require that the two parties work together, especially in times of divided government control (as we have seen for much of the last decade). Without compromise and the willingness to bridge party lines, we are left with gridlock and a neglect of governing duty. Nothing happens.
Bad Politics Hurts the Country
Voters often take their cues from elites. If they see elite political actors denouncing the other side and brazenly attacking them with vitriolic rhetoric, they will follow suit and grow to view opposition with nothing but ire. This anger is directed at opposing elites and opposing partisans at all levels (right on down to their neighbors). An angry base motivated by elite rhetoric stimulates a self-fulfilling cycle: Politicians incite voter anger; if same-party politicians begin to work across the aisle, voters respond by kicking them out of office and replacing the bipartisan lawmaker with an extremist. That, of course, precludes any opportunity of compromise and increases the animosity between partisans (they view the other party as culpable for government’s inaction). In that way, inciting the base damages elite interests because they lose agency. No longer can they compromise to advance legislation closer to (but not at) their ideal points. Doing so would earn a primary challenge (and ask the likes of Eric Cantor and Bob Bennett how that turned out for them). Bad politics from our leaders encourages and directly leads to bad politics from voters.
The anger between the two sides permeates discourse. Voters, with cues from elites, come to despise the other side and to decry bipartisan politicians. They also refuse to accept the legitimacy of other ideas. Liberal or conservative thought is dismissed out of hand. Partisans refuse to consider any aspect of the arguments — refusing to analyze an argument’s merit weakens the marketplace of ideas as the only trading that takes place is in an ideological echo chamber where partisans read, discuss, and accept viewpoints put forth by like minded individuals or organizations. A political system that requires compromise to overcome institutional hurdles needs partisan elites and voters to learn, accept, and debate the merits of ideas so we can reach consensus. But by refusing to even consider opposing beliefs as legitimate, compromise becomes impossible.
We need to embrace a politics of understanding. Elites need to tone done hostile rhetoric to give voters cues that opposition is legitimate and their ideas have merit and elements of truth. Voters, in turn, need to consider opposing arguments and digest the data, analysis, and conclusions presented by other thinkers. It opens our minds and helps a synthesis emerge from the liberal thesis and its conservative antithesis.
This isn’t a call to forego your ideology. It’s a call to learn from the other side, to view it as legitimate, and to embrace opposition as an alternate view to the same end goal: Bettering America and enriching her citizens.