As we stand on the precipice of the next presidential plebiscite, it’s tempting to indulge in the popular fantasy that we’re on the eve of a great national conversation.
It’s a nice enough thought.
We’d love to tell you that the country can disagree agreeably. We’d prefer to remind you that both sides — or even all sides — are interested in a meaningful dialogue that leads to a renewed and reinvigorated sense of mutual purpose, unity and goodwill. We’d like nothing better than to use this space to publish a list of all the places people could meet to delve into the issues, learn the facts and engage in meaningful discussion about our national direction, priorities and character.
That just isn’t the way things are.
The state of our union, to be sure, is strong. These United States, nevertheless, are divided.
No, not “as never before.” The notion that things are worse than they’ve ever been, the idea we’ve never been at this point before, is weapons-grade hooey. It’s piffle. Bilge. The most dangerous eight words in our language are “This time things are going to be different.”
No, they aren’t.
Things are going to be within shouting distance of the way they’ve always been. All outcomes ultimately regress to the mean: That’s the law of large numbers, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The mean, after all, does change over time.
Disagreement need not divide us. This nation has had different ideas from Day One, and about nearly everything. Independence. Slavery. Prohibition. Suffrage. World War II. Civil rights. Vietnam. Watergate. Iran-Contra. Desert Storm. The Clintons. Obama. That’s not just a few highlights from a freshman history course, it’s the broad outline of our inalienable right to think as we choose. Fighting for such beliefs, whether they come from the right, the left or from straight down the middle, is and must remain our sacred birthright. It’s the way things should be in a country predicated on the primacy of individual liberty and self-determination.
And yet, as we approach this election cycle, things do feel decidedly different in the public square. A number of venerated traditions — from minimum standards of decorum to, say, the daily briefing — have been upended. “Blasted to smithereens” might be more apropos. The national mood seems harsher, even vituperative. It’s less tolerant and more strident. This is the inevitable result of the devolution of knock-down partisan politics, where, we hypothesize, the timbre grows ever nastier in inverse proportion to the stakes. Ever notice that? No one argued in the weeks after 9/11. Now, you can’t finish giving a speech in favor of free cash in a bank lobby without being excoriated on social media before you’ve even finished.
So the question is appropriate: What in the Sam Hill can we do about the national divide?
The answers are not easy.
But they are simple.
First, we must stop talking at each other and start talking with each other. Not every disagreement of policy need be an indictment of character. We have to continually hone our ability to listen to one another with respect and to engage thoughtfully. This requires deepening the conversation to a salient discourse about not what divides us but rather about the values we share. Of course we will disagree. That’s fine. But beating the other guy into bloody submission is a far different outcome than winning an argument on the merits with one’s inside voice. And there’s more: We all must approach such dialogue with the understanding that some answers are unknowable and that some issues can never be reconciled. That’s just life. Well-meaning people can disagree without the need to refight Antietam.
Second, we must step back from the specious notion that when something is labeled it is understood. That’s dismissive of big truths that we should not dismiss. Sneering that so-and-so is a sweaty-lipped liberal sumbitch or mean-spirited Republican Brownshirt doesn’t advance any element of either side’s talking points. It doesn’t even frame the discussion. Labeling is just name-calling. With more syllables, perhaps, but with no more understanding and, these days, with neither pith nor elan. We must foster some growth in our collective character on that score. We must learn to address each other, unfailingly, as dignity-worthy individuals, not as archetypes or arch enemies.
Third, we must give each other credit for our best intentions. Sometimes, naturally, our efforts fall short. So will our opponent’s. It doesn’t mean they didn’t try, nor even that they didn’t themselves wish a better outcome. Whatever the results may be, they don’t cross-cancel the baseline respect to which all are entitled. We cannot reflexively presume that the other side is evil or somehow lesser. After all, not every public official is power hungry and on the take. Not every coach should be fired merely for losing a game. We need not be naive or Pollyanna, to be sure. But we must also strive to resist even the most latent urge to luxuriate in too-easy cynicism.
Finally, we must reject the sad and shallow notion that politics is bloodsport and that one’s political opponents are one’s mortal enemies. We’re bigger than that. We’re better. We aspire, rightly, to a more ideal plain. Our political system, for all its flaws, is not a mere game. One side doesn’t need to be wrong for the other side to be right, nor vice versa. Sometimes, certainly, wrong exists. Sometimes wrong even gets a seat behind the big desk. But its incidence rate is a fraction of what the national tone — and the national media — would suggest.
No law says we have to agree. Not about the big things, not about the little things. But we do have to work together to take steps toward that more perfect union enshrined in our founding documents. As Dr. King stated eloquently, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
How do we treat one another on the eve of an election?
The same way we should strive to treat each other the rest of the time.
With respect, kindness and care.