Conversations about Politics
A reflection on political disagreement, respect, and democracy
by Richard SchmittJuly 20, 2018
One of my instructors in college, soon after the end of World War II, insisted that if the US government had wanted to establish concentration camps, it would not have had difficulties finding guards. In every nation, he insisted, one could find people given to violence and brutality to match the guards in German concentration camps.
The separation of babies, infants and children from their parents as they come across the border with Mexico, reminds me of these conversations in college. It appears that there is no shortage of border guards who are willing to take children from their parents. According to one story a nursing baby was taken from its mother’s breast. The President has succeeded in persuading enough people of the evils of unlawful immigration to make them willing to detain those immigrants and to split up their families.
How can we deal with these fellow citizens who loyally execute presidential policies which a majority of Americans regard as repugnant and inconsistent with our values?
Democrats are rallying to take back majorities in the House and the Senate by making sure that everyone on their side will actually go and vote this November. That is clearly a good policy but, by itself, it is incomplete. If they succeed and House and Senate will once again have Democratic majorities, the quarter or a third of our population that is persuaded that their economic problems are to be blamed on illegal immigration, on Muslims, and other people from abroad will, once again, not have effective political representation. But they will remain where they are, waiting for another electoral cycle when they, once more, will have significant political power. Conservatives currently force their vision on liberals and progressives. If the Left wins the upcoming elections, they will be in a position to force their views on the Right. But the conflict will remain unresolved. The democracy we aspire to in which all the people govern themselves together will remain as remote as ever.
If we are to strengthen the democratic aspects of our society, we need to reduce the extent to which opponents coerce each other. Besides changing the majorities in Congress, we need to talk to our fellow citizens whom Trump inflames with his rhetoric. But how will we talk to them? Can we persuade them that they are wrong and we are right?
Conversations about political disagreements, for instance about immigration, usually begin as attempts of each side to convince their opponents that they are mistaken, that what they regard as facts are actually fictions, that their inferences are faulty, and their values questionable. ( Philosophers are especially fond of those conversations.) But soon these attempts at persuading one another degenerate into shouting matches. Emotions rise, mutual understanding fails completely.
We tend to blame this failure of conversations about politics on the irrationality of our opponents. Instead of listening carefully to arguments, examining evidence and trying to pinpoint agreements and disagreements, many of us reject out of hand what those we disagree with have to say. Irrationality takes the form of unwillingness to listen carefully and respectfully. A necessary precondition of serious conversations between political enemies is mutual respect. We cannot talk to each other if we secretly believe the other side to be stupid, misinformed, brainwashed by propaganda. Any sort of political conversation that might actually be useful presupposes that each side is willing to recognize the other side as an equal partner in the conversation, not merely a benighted ignoramus to be an enlightened by our superior understanding.
But this form of irrationality is not the exclusive characteristic of conservatives. Leftists and progressives too often fail to listen with care and respect to their conservative opponents. They, too, refuse to talk to persons whose political perspective differs fundamentally from theirs. Both sides to political controversy need to make, often difficult, efforts to listen and respond respectfully to their opponents.
You cannot have that kind of mutually respectful conversation with everybody. Some opponents may be too rigid or, yes, too unintelligent to be able to participate. Some are unable or unwilling to manage their strong commitments to a specific political stance. But there are enough people one could have a useful conversation with if only one tried.
Many families have members on either side of any political (or moral, or religious, or other) divide. If family members do not get along, have never gotten along, have always secretly despised each other, a useful political dialogue is not in their future. But there also are family members who sort of like each other except for their very different political orientation.
These are the people that should give each other the benefit of the doubt and explore quietly their differences as well as their shared values in order to discover why they have such different assessments of the President’s agenda. Here is a chance for each to learn something, to broaden their understanding of one another and perhaps even to learn from each other.
Similarly, friends and acquaintances, co-workers are in relationships that allow for possibly enlightening conversations. Rarely will they persuade each other to give up cherished political principles. But instead of remaining completely at loggerheads, unable to understand each other or to have informative conversations, they may find enough agreements to engage in joint actions. Even though they continue to differ in deep ways, they can resolve disagreements sufficiently to act in concert.
As long as each party to current political divides insists that they are right and their opponents incompetent, bumbling, and mistaken, our political system will oscillate between “progressive” and conservative majorities coercing their opponents. When each is in power they will force the others to follow their policies. Cooperation will be rare and insignificant.
Cooperation is possible only among groups that manage to have useful conversations and those are possible only when each party is genuinely willing to listen to the other and is prepared to change its mind, to appreciate the insights of the opponent in order to forge some kind of, however limited, consensus. The determination of each side to show the other side the error of its ways, instead of being of the essence of rationality, makes rational conversation impossible.
For that to happen both sides need to speak to each other respectfully. (What that might require of us needs more reflection.)