Why Can’t We Just Get Along?

Over at his blog, Brazen Maverick, one of our students, Sam Sarver, echoes a conversation that has been happening here about the difficulty of communication across the ideological divide. He was singularly unimpressed with Sarah Palin’s performance in Thursday’s debate but recognizes that others (I would be among them) thought that she did quite well, albeit with neither syntax or word choice calculated to appeal to academic types.

Mr. Sarver wonders whether people holding what seem to be radically differing perceptions of reality can ever talk to one another. I think that they can, but mostly they don’t.

My way of looking at these matters is that political dialogue occurs at two levels. That part that is directed to the public at large is largely oversimplified and, because of the public’s limited attention span and (perhaps rational) unwillingness to inform itself on political questions, largely conducted in bad faith. Thus, the Obama campaign continues to run a radio spot here in Wisconsin about John McCain’s position on stem cell research that is demonstrably false. The McCain campaign (and, yes, it is hard and painful for me to offer an example) runs an ad on Obama supporting sex education for kindergarten kids that suggests far more than the facts support.

These things are not a product of the dimwittedness or perfidy of the candidates. Try to run a campaign any other way.

But discourse about politics can be different. People of differing positions can listen to what their opponents have to say and acknowledge its implications. They can decline the temptation to misstate what the other side has said. They can try to explain, with candor and respect, why they disagree without clinging to the self-flattery that the only people that take the opposing views are venal, clueless or, as we often hear from one side about the other, both.

This type of conversation occurs all the time, if rarely for mass consumption. It doesn’t mean that we will all come to agree with one another or that there is common ground on which all will feel equally comfortable. We have legitimate reasons for disagreement.

But taking a political opponents seriously and presuming her good faith can be both humbling and humanizing. Try it.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Sean Samis

    Certainly the reasons for our breakdown in political discourse are many; not the least being that elections are purely distributive from the candidates’ and political parties’ perspectives; and often so from the voters’ perspectives, too. Either X wins or Y. Usually there is no third choice, and no win-win is possible.

    One solution might be to give voters a third choice: None Of The Above. Candidates would need to avoid being so badly behaved that voters reject them. Smearing the other candidate is riskier when voters can reject both candidates.

    This is not a cost-free solution; in difficult times a failure to elect anyone would have risks over and above the costs inherent in re-running an election. But certainly at municipal and state levels a NOTA option would be less risky and might induce more rational behavior at the grassroots level, which would affect behavior at the national level, too. Other steps that encourage third-party or non-partisan candidates would also help.

    Just a little brain-storming here . . . .

  2. Ed Fallone

    It strikes me as odd that a misleading Obama ad can be characterized as “demonstrably false” while an equally misleading McCain ad can be characterized as suggesting “far more than the facts support.” There are many ways to admit that the ad is untrue, but this has to be the weakest possible choice of words that could convey that thought. Speaking as someone who stands to the left of Professor Esenberg, I can only say that real communication across the political divide is only possible when both sides can speak honestly about the failings of their own leaders.

  3. Jason Decent

    I find that political discussions become less fruitful when they become a guise for an ideological battle. What I mean by that is people see the politician they support as the embodiment of the ideology they subscribe to. The debate can easily turn into stereotypes and vagaries especially when the parties involved are not well informed. Both of the misleading ads you discuss focus on those who do not pay close attention. Unfortunately/Fortunately the votes of those who are swayed by that one ad count as much as yours or mine. I recently had a discussion with an acquaintance who is conservative but does not follow politics very closely. He told me how he felt about the candidates and the impression he got from them but we could not have a substantive debate on the issues. While he may base his decisions of whatever amount of information he deems sufficient, the discussion was far from rewarding. It amounted to him supporting John McCain because John McCain is the Republican Nominee and therefore representative of his values. There is very little to discuss there. On the other hand, if two parties are well informed and open to debating the merits of policies a discussion can be very fruitful, even if minds are not changed. All of our opinions are strengthened once they are challenged and defended. We can agree to disagree but we should know why and be able to tell each other.

  4. Richard M. Esenberg

    As I indicated in my post, I don’t hold myself above the fray. My inner partisan is as hungry as the next guy’s and occasionally demands to be fed.

    So maybe I should have been harsher on McCain although many of my ideological cohorts have actually defended the sex education ad. I chose those words intentionally. The McCain ad differs from the Obama stem cell ad (or, if you prefer, a McCain spanish language ad that seems to falsely state Obama’s position on immigration reform) in that it’s description of the bill is literally true.

    The bill Obama supported mandated some form of sex education for kindergarteners. Although the language of the bill seems to require such education on sexually transmitted diseases, there are also provisions that call for age appropriate instruction and, therefore, I think the ad’s implication that bill would have resulted in some some form of explicit sex education was unfair. I would not have supported the bill in the form that passed out of Obama’s committee, but not because I feared that it would result in “how-to” instruction for five year olds.

    In this sense, the McCain ad is more like an ad that Obama is currently running on McCain’s health care plan. Literally true (McCain proposes to include employer provided health insurance premiums in taxable income) but suggesting far more than the facts support because virtually no one would actually pay any tax.

    Were the sex ed and stem cell ads equally misleading? I don’t propose to say. Both were an example of discourse undertaken in bad faith and, for that reason, I don’t think McCain should have approved his message just as much as I believe that Obama should not have approved the stem cell ad.

    As someone who stands to the right of Professor Fallone, I wouldn’t expect him to denounce Obama (when Obama is wrong) as harshly as he criticizes McCain. The important thing, and I am sure that he agrees, is to discuss the facts as they are and not as our side would like to spin them. That can and does happen but, unfortunately, not often for mass consumption.

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