Do We Need A Conversation?

Last night, in her “town hall meeting” on CNN, Hillary Rodham Clinton was asked about gun violence in schools. She said we need a conversation about gun laws. It was a classic dodge: When a politician does not want to come clean with what they really think, they call for a “national conversation” on the topic at hand.

Barack Obama has several times called for a national conversation on race. Does anyone doubt that he thinks he knows what the right questions and the right answers should be? Similarly, does anyone doubt what Clinton thinks about gun laws? But, when saying what you think is likely to cause political backlash and controversy, our cautious political class calls for a conversation.

We do not need a national conversation. We need debate. And, regrettably, there are precious few forums for debate left in our democracy. And, democracy without debate is a fragile thing. So, at a deeper level, the classic dodge of calling for a conversation is actually on to something: Our nation desperately needs to find ways to adjudicate our differences.

It won’t be easy. Last week’s study from Pew shows a nation that is deeply polarized and not just in the voting booth. Americans who live in urban areas hold wildly different views of the world than those who live in rural areas. The two groups value different things, view the world through different lenses, and the resulting polarization affects the way we vote as well as the kinds of everyday choices we make. The Pew study makes for a dispiriting read not least because America needs both vibrant cities and vibrant towns. Furthermore, the Pew data shows that the more a person is politically engaged, the more likely they are to be hyper-partisan. The center is diminishing and the extremes are gaining strength.

In a democracy, election campaigns are the principal forums for debate. But, redistricting has resulted in very few congressional races being contested. Redistricting is almost as old as the republic and the word we use for drawing district lines to achieve a desired political outcome – gerrymandering – comes from the name of one of the founders, Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the fifth Vice President of the United States. He famously re-drew the lines of a congressional district in Massachusetts to ensure his election to Congress and, in so doing, lent his name to a process that stalks the nation’s politics even unto today. And, unlike the late eighteenth century, redistricting can now be done with computerized precision, placing on side of a street in one district and the other side of the street in another.

Sometimes, this redistricting process backfires on those who craft their districts. People were quick to suggest that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat last week was the result of a popular groundswell of opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. It is true that the challenger, David Brat, hammered cantor on the issue. But, it is also true that Brat’s stiff-necked opposition to immigration does not reflect the views of his constituents, only the views of the GOP primary voters in his constituency. And, that make-up of that constituency is far more conservative than it used to be because Eric Cantor, wanting to make it less likely he would have to sweat a general election contest, re-drew the lines of his district to make it more ruby red Republican. Be careful what you wish for.

Congressional dysfunction is another impediment to genuine debate. The Senate used to be known as the world’s greatest deliberative body, but that body no longer really deliberates. Indeed, with the pressure to be back in their districts each weekend, and the increased need for non-stop fundraising, members of Congress no longer really get to know each other as people. It is harder to caricature, still more despise, someone whom you dined with the night before. This malady is not confined to Capitol Hill. The most damning, but least noticed, criticism leveled by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his book was that both President Obama and President George W. Bush invested precious little time in the cultivation of relationships with people upon whom they depended to succeed. Both men spent more time with “their team” then with opposing congressional leaders or world leaders.

There are yet deeper impediments to a “national conversation.” We moderns have a faith in rationality to resolve all issues. But, Americans disagree on first principles. There are incommensurable values that different sectors of the population hold. So, when someone on the left calls for a national conversation, they are pretty sure that if their benighted opponents merely looked at the data, they would change their opinions and reach the correct conclusion. And, conversely, those on the right have developed an intellectual cast of mind that is resistant to data – creationism anyone? – and have crafted a narrative about the “mainstream media” that denies the value of objectivity. No amount of conversation will yield a consensus when divergent first principles are not admitted up front and recognized as possessing a certain validity per se. The best we can hope for, and it is no small thing, is that if we at least become better aware of these divergences, we can soften the edges of the debate, better appreciate at least the sincerity of those with whom we disagree, and instead of trying to proselytize, try to gain an appreciation for whatever wisdom is contained in the views of those whose views we do not share.

Americans like to celebrate our pluralism, but we have still not figured out how to handle it. This is related to the point made in the last paragraph but it is also a bit different. In the 1950s, there was a great discussion of our “national purpose.” This discussion is brilliantly analyzed by George Marsden in his new book “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.” The problem, then and now, is that the nouns were rendered in the singular instead of the plural. The conversation will be more fruitful if we seek to discern our national purposes. We Americans want different things, from our government, from our society, from our economy. Instead of believing that we can forge a consensus where none exists, better to aim at creating a political culture that sustains and nourishes a richly pluralistic national life. This is a demographic reality, but we have not translated it into a political reality.

In the absence of real debates, real conversations with appropriate objectives, we get political polarization, as the Pew study demonstrates. Instead of Walter Cronkite, we get dueling cable news talking heads, who talk past each other not with each other. Instead of common sense steps to address gun violence, or the environmental challenges we face, or budget deficits, we get stalemate. This is very dangerous. In the absence of a vital center in the political life of any nation, the extremes gain power and influence. This should worry us all.

In my dark moments, I worry that a national crisis will impend and that the vital center will not hold. It may be a foreign crisis, such as an assault on Israel with weapons of mass destruction. It may be an environmental crisis, if severe weather or if rising ocean levels rise faster than anticipated pose an existential threat to major U.S. cities like Miami or New Orleans. It may be another economic crisis. In such crises, the center must hold. In researching my first book “Left at the Altar,” I became acquainted with the many voices, and many mainstream, highly educated voices, in late 1932 and early 1933 that were urging Franklin Delano Roosevelt to assume dictatorial powers and suspend the Constitution. Mussolini was seen as a man who had dealt effectively with his nation’s problems. Hitler’s rise in Germany was viewed similarly. Such was the sense of crisis, that people lost faith in normal democratic procedures and hoped for FDR to save the nation and if such saving required suspending the Constitution, so be it. We can all be grateful FDR did not take this advice. Whatever you think of the New Deal, it was better than suspending the Constitution.

I fear that if our nation were to face another great crisis, would we look to a similar leading figure and would some who should know better urge the suspension of the Constitution. Would some be drawn to, say, a Ross Perot populist charlatan who, once invested with extraordinary power, would prove unworthy of its exercise. There is no preventing all future crises. Something bad will happen. But, what we can do is seek to rebuild and strengthen the center in American politics through both institutional and attitudinal means, ending partisan re-districting, changing Congress’ schedule so they can spend some weekends getting to know each other, electing presidents who recognize the need to engage congressional leaders, but also resisting the urge to cast aspersions on others’ motives, learning, patiently, what motivates those with whom we disagree, and calling out the extremists on our own side of the political divide.

Tomorrow: Polarization in the Church.


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