Seeking the Antidote for the Poisoned Well of Modern Politics

We’re off to the races again and the current crop of presidential contenders is popping up like so many mushrooms in the night. The coming year will bring with it an endless stream of money-driven ads, personal attacks and talking heads with their polarizing spin intended to align the electorate in accordance with its political charge (Ds to the left, Rs to the right and everybody attacking the center, trying to beat it into conforming with either a D or an R polarity). Liberals are Liberals (except when they re-brand themselves as Progressives, of course) and Conservatives are Conservatives and never shall the train meet in the middle. Once the battle lines are drawn and the likely voters in the middle who cannot be beaten into submission are small enough so that they can be effectively ignored, we go to war in a take no prisoners, the end justifies the means fashion that eventually leads to a “winner” in the D and R boot camp that can lead the country to the usual political civil war that is our election cycle. When the dust settles and the winning general gets the prize of free rent and board at the People’s House for four years with all the golf, free first-class vacations and fund raisers they can manage in order to prepare for the next election cycle. The country is left to lick its political wounds, beaten, bruised, bloodied and blue. Whoever wins, the losers vow revenge and begin an immediate counter-revolutionary campaign to undermine the winner and, if possible, destroy him/her with death by a thousand paper cuts.

            We do the exact same thing every year and hope for a different result, turning democracy or people’s rule from the original Greek into democrazy in our Americanized version.

            But it need not be this way. Political operatives manipulate us only because we allow them to, because we buy into the polarization and the reduction of complex issues to a simple binary 0/1, black-white, yes no answer that ignores the tremendous shades of grey that any thinking person can detect while looking at any complex issue with a modicum of objectivity. The truth is we don’t want to be bothered with the huge swaths of grey areas and promptly attack people who point to them as delusional, misguided, uninformed, obstructionists who would stand in the way of PROGRESS. Those who worry about the grey areas and fail to see only the black/white choices offered them (be they observers from the left or the right of the political spectrum) are lectured ab infinitum in an attempt to refocus their vision on the black or the white ends of the spectrum. If they do not drink the Kool-Aid and don the required blinders to view the world in the “right way”

            Binary thinking is dangerous. All true believers engage in it, be they of the (ultra) Conservative, (ultra) Liberal, Communist, Socialist, Fascist, Anarchist or other absolutist persuasion. Racists use it. So do race-baiters. So do misogynists. It leads to the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” ethos of all radical wingnuts that makes it a capital offense (quite literally, all too often) to hold an opposing point of view. It makes it impossible for people to have honest disagreements since anyone who disagrees with the “right-thinking” dogma are “enemies” to be “destroyed” by “any means necessary.” The seething contempt we see in political attack ads (and the somewhat subtler versions in too many supposedly objective “news reports,” interviews and “round table” discussions in both network and cable news channels) reinforces this type of binary thinking. The cheap tricks of partisans who try to stifle debate by obstructionist tactics or simply by raising their voice in an attempt to drown out opposing points of view also reinforce and perpetuate this mindset.

            The political well has been poisoned for too long—from the beginning of our fledgling democracy in fact (for all of their many strengths and intellectual gifts even great men like Jefferson and Adams behaved very badly in the political arena and contributed in no small way to the brackish political waters that we’ve been forced to drink from their time forward). But its waters are not beyond redemption. All that is needed is an electorate willing to embrace the following simple rules:

  1. Recognize binary thinking for what is: the providence of the intellectually lazy, the weak minded and the uninformed. There are very few political issues with unambiguous black-and-white answers. Most issues that affect our society, including issues of law, ethics and public policy, are highly nuanced. To the man with the hammer the whole world is a nail. But we are all blessed with a far richer set of tools in our personal toolboxes garnered from our life experiences, our education, our independent study, our work and our avocations. People who wield only a hammer will have the same response to every issue: “we need more taxing and spending and equitable distribution of wealth” for those who wield the hammer with the left hands, or “we need to lower all taxes, decrease all government regulation and empower business” for those who wield it with their right hands. Unfortunately, hammers wielded by the left or right hand are just at clumsy and destructive when used on screws and absolutely useless when attempting to loosen or tighten a nut or mend a cracked copper pot. Hammers have their uses, but they cannot replace screwdrivers, wrenches or welding equipment and any effort to put them to those tasks will inevitably yield disastrous results that will be made only worse by increased hammering.
  2. Acknowledge and respect the viability of opposing points of view. Sometimes opposing points of view are irreconcilable with our own and compromise is simply impossible. But this conclusion should not be reached lightly and must be acknowledged as the exception, not the rule, in political discourse. I would no more try to convince a Marxist to adopt my point of view than I would try to pour the contents of the Atlantic Ocean into a hole in the sand in my local beach. A Marxist trying to convince me to adopt Marxism as my political philosophy would have a similar fool’s errand. Before reaching my conclusion, however, I actually read Marx and Engels, took numerous political science classes as an undergraduate student, and even a class in anarchism. I believe I understand the basic tenets of Marxism, Anarchism, and for that matter Fascism far better than the average political commentator or the average demonstrator at any fringe rally. I understand too the basic differences between the Liberal/Progressive and Conservative ideologies, and the essential tenets of the Democratic and Republican parties. I know I can articulate them in any debate at least as well as the average politician who proudly wears any of those labels. I also understand the roots of those differences, the different world views that inform them and the equally different schools of ethics that justify them as well. Law is my area of expertise. But politics and ethics are also long-standing subjects of interest to me. The connections between law, jurisprudence, politics and ethics are self-evident. Understanding and respecting other points of view is the first step to building meaningful bridges towards compromise.
  3. There are many paths to good public policy. No ideology can claim to have cornered the truth market. People of good will who have the best interest of society in mind must embrace this simple fact. Lasting compromise that is acceptable to people with very different political philosophies can only be reached when neither side is asked to betray its core beliefs. On some issues, compromise is simply not possible because it would require one side to cross a bright line that it is unable to cross in good conscience. Abortion is one such issue where irreconcilable ethical and religious views can make compromise unacceptable to people on both sides of the reproductive freedom debate with inflexible views on the subject. But no such bright line exists as to the vast majority of political issues. An honest understanding of and respect for opposing points of view makes it possible for us to view the world through others’ eyes, to understand their basic assumptions and to plot a viable path towards common goals that circumvents unscalable peaks and catastrophic chasms.

I had the pleasure of a recent dinner and a couple of beers with my dearest friend since High School. He was the best man at my wedding, a person who for me personifies integrity and in whom I have absolute and unquestionable confidence. As is always the case when we spend time together (even over the phone) we turned to the subject of our very different politics and world views and how we’ve been able to bridge these on every single issue since our late teens. In many respects we could not be more different. He is tall, very dark and very handsome. I am on the short and quite dumpy side these days. He was always an excellent athlete and I always tended more to the sedentary couch potato type. He is the strong, quiet type—usually reserved. I am more boisterous and outwardly emotional. He is a life-long Met fan—before the miracle Mets of 1969– and I’ve always rooted for the Yankees, even in the painful 60s and 70s. He is a left of center life-long Democrat and I am a right of center life-long Republican. He is a Southern Baptist and I a Catholic. (He was a delegate for the People’s Party when we were in college while I was a Reagan republican then and now.) You get the point. Yet we have been the closest of friends since our first year at Brooklyn Tech where we first met. We are both very bright and, in our own way, very opinionated. We are both very interested in politics. Neither his nor my politics are in the least bit motivated by self-interest. We are kindred spirits in this and in too many other things to list here. Rather than politely tolerate our differences on politics (or sports, for that matter), we’ve spent many hundreds of hours in deep discussions about them—arguing, advocating and invariably always—ALWAYS—reaching a compromise position that we could both live with were we able to set policy ourselves. We’ve even good naturedly ribbed one another about the people we’ve supported over the years, and discussed serious concerns about their weaknesses from our disparate points of view. No issue has been off the table ever—not the death penalty, not abortion, not gay marriage, not race relations, not welfare reform, not absolutely anything that we both feel passionately about and often differ on. We’ve never parted angry from intense discussions and we’ve both had a very real impact on each other’s world view—a discussion we turned to again at our most recent meeting. Our secret is very simple: we have absolute, unshakeable trust in one another and in one another’s integrity. Our belief systems are strongly held but not inflexible. We truly know and understand the other’s world view and can articulate each other’s arguments without a thought—and not in a mocking or condescending way or simply to set up a straw man that we can then knock down. The fact that we disagree on some really important issues gives us both equal pause as to the absolute righteousness of our own point of view. We keep each other honest out of the simple and genuine respect for the other’s views.

As the political campaigns gear up, by all means join the debate, call out politicians who are hypocritical, clueless or corrupt, and argue for your point of view. But show respect for opposing points of view that reasonable people may hold with which you happen to disagree. Governor X who is a Republican may be a complete idiot. That does not make all republicans idiots. Senator Y who is a democrat may be corrupt and clueless, that does not make other democrats corrupt or clueless. Call out public servants who do not serve the public well, but don’t poison the well by hyperbolic, broad-brush attacks on parties or political philosophies. And never simply parrot what others say. That is good advice that goes well beyond politics.

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