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Can People on the Left and the Right Still Talk?

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Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and Contributing Editor of HNN. For a list of all of Moss’s recent books and online publications, click here.


In his recent Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress(reviewed here), Steven Pinker bemoans the increasing political partisanship of recent decades. "Troublingly, each side has become more contemptuous of the other. . . . The ideologues on each side have also become more resistant to compromise.”  “Political tribalism is the most insidious form of irrationality today.” Pinker is sympathetic to moderate liberalism and favors a pragmatic, rather than ideological, attitude to politics. He often quotes favorably Philip Tetlock, who also favors a pragmatic approach and has commented on both left-wing and right-wing biases. 

To lessen our biases, to create a less toxic political atmosphere, to further the common good, and to create a better America what we clearly need is less name-calling and more dialogue. 

Dialogue is a favorite word of Pope Francis. In his 2015encyclical on climate change(see also here), he used it about two dozen times. In a speech later that year to the U. S. Congresshe mentioned it a dozen times. For example, “When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue . . . new opportunities open up for all. . . . A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism.”

The pope’s words remind me of those of aider-of-the-poor Dorothy Day,recognized by both him and President Obama as one of our greatest Americans.In a long essay on Day, I once quoted her words in 1974 after she attended an anarchist conference: “Because I have been behind bars in police stations, houses of detention, jails and prison farms . . . and have refused to pay Federal income taxes and have never voted, they accept me as an anarchist. And I in turn, can see Christ in them even though they deny Him, because they are giving themselves to working for a better social order for the wretched of the earth.”

Four decades earlier she had expressed similar words about communists. “Most Catholics speak of Communists with the bated breath of horror. And yet those poor unfortunate ones who have not the faith to guide them are apt to stand more chance in the eyes of God than those indifferent Catholics who stand by and do nothing for ‘the least of them’ of whom Christ spoke.” 

On various occasions, Day stated that we should seek “points of agreement and concordance, if possible, rather than the painful differences, religious and political.” We should try to understand other points of view before engaging in any unenlightened condemnation of them.

In earlier essays (e.g., here), I have argued about the value of political compromise and quoted and cited various politicians and political thinkers, left and right, on its merits—for example, Ben Franklin, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk,John Kennedy Ronald Reagan , and Senators Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch. 

Although President Obama was not a great political tactician, he also realized the need for dialogue and compromise. During his presidential years, helamentedthe “vilification and over-the-top rhetoric [that] closes the door to the possibility of compromise.” He also saidthat “change requires more than just speaking out—it requires listening, as well. In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise. . . . Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.”

After leaving office, Obama toldyoung leaders from India: “You can’t be a purist if you want to bring change. You will never get a 100 percent of what you want. You will never get a 100 percent of justice. . . . There is so much competing attention. And what gets the most attention is conflict, and sound bytes, and tweets. The more controversial the better. And as a consequence, there is no dialogue.”

In our present toxic political atmosphere it is easy to overlook the presence of dialogue and the value of it. For years I have regularly enjoyed the respectful and honest exchanges of the liberal Mark Shields and conservative David Brooks that occur on Friday’s PBS NewsHour (see, e.g., here)—though in the Trump era, they both agree more than disagree about how bad the Trump administration is. Brooks also used to engage in honest, and at times humorous, dialogue with the more liberal Gail Collins in the pages of theNew York Times. (More recently Bret Stephens has replaced Brooks as Collins’s dialogue partner—see, e.g., here.)

Although angry left-right rhetoric seems more common than dialogue, there are glimmers of hope that as a nation we can learn to talk to each other more civilly. One of these hopeful rays comes from my undergraduate alma mater, Xavier University (Ohio). There in the fall of 2018 philosophy professor Richard Polt will oversee a speaker series titled, "Conversations Across the American Divide." Hehopesthat his speakers will “be models of how one can actively, and even empathetically, listen to a point of view that may be diametrically opposed to their own,” and “be open to the possibility of changing their minds.” Topics will include usually contentious subjects such as race, immigration, sexism, nationalism, religious versus secular America, and urban versus rural viewpoints. One of confirmed speakers is Dylan Marron, who in his podcast“Conversations with People Who Hate Me” attempts to dialogue with people who have said hateful things about him.

There are also numerous historical examples of the value of dialogue. One thinks of the Reagan-Gorbachev Summitsthat led to the end of the Cold War or the talks between Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch thatfostered bipartisan legislation in the decades before Kennedy’s death in 2009. Hatch wroteof his more liberal “close personal friend”: “We did not agree on much, and more often than not, I was trying to derail whatever big government scheme he had just concocted. We did manage to forge partnerships on key legislation, such as the Ryan White AIDS Care Act, State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and most recently, the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. Ted was a lion among liberals, but he was also a constructive and shrewd lawmaker. He never lost sight of the big picture and was willing to compromise on certain provisions in order to move forward on issues he believed important.”

The way Congress has operated in recent years, any compromise legislation that is passed seems like a major accomplishment. As Obama stated, you “never get a 100 percent of what you want.” But in an ideal world dialogue should lead to much more than each side just giving up something. It should bring about better legislation for the country, for the common good, than either the Democrats or Republicans, or liberals and conservatives, could arrive at by themselves. 

Because we are a nation of many different interests, of many different strengths and weaknesses, pursuing the common good should entail furthering not just my personal interests or those of whatever groups I identify with, but the common good of all the people of the United States. If I am a union member, for example, I should not expect just legislation that favors unions, but also realize that small business owners, farmers, and stock holders of corporations also have their unique interests, and Congress has a responsibility to consider the overall good and not just that of special groups.

What positive dialogue should produce is better national ideas than any one individual, group, or party could generate by itself. The reason for this is that dialogue should provide partakers with new insights, new ideas, even the occasional realization that one’s original idea or plan is flawed. We should be like good scientists who are ready to modify or discard hypotheses when new evidence demonstrates their flaws. 

In his The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation(1999), Daniel Yankelovich indicates numerous reasons why dialogue is superior to debate or other forms of conversation and discussion, and he provides numerous examples from politics, business, and education.

But dialogue demands two virtues that are in short supply in our current political milieu—humility and empathy. The first dictates that we realize our own fallibility, that we (individually or as part of some group or party) don’t have all the answers and that we could learn from others. The second demands that we listen, really listen, to others and try to internalize their thoughts and feelings, including their fears.

In 2005, Democratic Congressman David Price (N.C) wrotethat “humility is out of fashion these days. Political leaders, advocates, and pundits often display an in-your-face assertiveness, seeming to equate uncertainty or even reflectiveness with weakness and a lack of moral fiber. Much of our nation and its leadership are in no mood to doubt their own righteousness.” Today, more than a decade later, with one of theleast humblepresidents we have ever had, humility is ever rarer. 

In regard to empathy, the following descriptionis most apt: “[It] is a tool for understanding the way another person thinks, feels or perceives. It enables us to comprehend another’s mindset, driving emotions or outlook, without requiring us to share the other’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions, or, indeed, approve of them. An empathic approach involves the assimilation of diverse information, including social, historical and psychological details, and a conscious effort to see the world through that person’s eyes.”

In his The Audacity of Hope,Barack Obama wrote that empathy was a quality “that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—-not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.”

But now, a decade after he wrote these words, with our current tweeting president displaying little empathy, that virtue appears rarely in the political arena. Name-calling (such as Trump’s tweeting “untruthful slime ball” about former FBI director James Comey) is more common. 

Yet, hope remains. As Martin Buber's I and Thouindicated almost a half century ago, dialoging not only contributes to a better society, but by encouraging humility and empathy, it also makes us better persons. And like Barack Obama in his 2004 Keynote Address to the Democratic Convention, I choose to believe that we wish to be better persons and create a more united America. It would be one that rises above all the ugly manifestations and name-calling of these Trumpian times. 


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