Something very ugly has crept into American political debate. It is not just harsh opposition. Cartoons from as far back as the early 19th century portray invective every bit as nasty as the worst of contemporary political comment. Political issues generate deep, deep feelings in people, and those people have always expressed their political views with great passion.
In recent times, however, political debate has done something far worse. It has disappeared. Real, serious debate has been replaced with ideological sloganeering. Instead of the process of stating one’s arguments and critiquing the arguments of others, we have been reduced to shouting slogans and defining ourselves with labels. Not only do we not engage in serious debate. We are even instructed not to argue and even not to allow argument. During the debates prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, its opponents were instructing people to go to the debates and create disruptions that would prevent rational debate.
All this came to a head for me when, recently, I was talking to a neighbor. A second neighbor came by, and the first said to the second, “Don’t talk politics with this guy. He’s a Democrat.” What my neighbor, a dear friend, was telling us was that political opinions were to be held without reason, without challenge. You believed this or that because it was what people of your ideological characterization believed. The closest anything came to reasoned debate was rationalization supporting your pure, ungrounded beliefs.
I admit to being guilty of this. I have for a long time called myself a liberal. I have restricted my watching of news solely to those stations and channels and newspapers that support my point of view. Worst of all, I have accepted positions, not because I had come to them through reasoned discourse, but simply because they had been designated the positions identified with the “liberal” label. For instance, I have accepted unlimited access to abortions because it is a “liberal” position, even though I have deep reservations about the subject, starting with the fact that I find it unquestionable that human life begins at conception.
So here is what I think we need to do. First of all, we should throw out all the labels. I am not a liberal, or a progressive, or a leftist. I am a person who has concluded, by reasoned discourse, certain positions, like the need for universal health care and the need to have more balance in the distribution of wealth through increases in a progressive tax system. Second, we should open our minds to, and participate in, reasoned discourse. No more shouting matches. No more listening only to likeminded people. We need to know and understand why people want more limited government and fewer (and lower) taxes.
And, very most of all, we need to listen. So talk to me. I’m listening.