"...I'm a Democrat", Will Rogers, 1935.
As I've written before, since I'm a student of what passes for civil discourse I regularly subject myself not just to articles on political sites but also to the comments folks make in "response" to those comments. It's often painful, mostly maddening, and largely irrelevant to the actual content of the original column. But that pretty well describes the current state of civil discourse in the society at large!
In my earlier posts, I have suggested that we need to have more honest conversations about the nature of the problems we face as a society. I have asked all parties to be committed to telling the truth in the midst of disagreement. I have suggested that we call out those who continue to repeat false claims. (My newest idea is to have the big "X" from the Family Feud game show appear on the screen when a politician repeats a known untruth! $200 million a day -- BEEP!)
There is a critique to be made of my position. It suggests that all matters of exaggeration, distortion, or fantasy are equal and that some of what was said (socialists, death panels) is so extreme as to deserve special condemnation. This is the critique the progressive caucus made of Jon Stewart's rally. It argues that we Democrats have suffered and need to release our own angry protest. I've had friends and family members make the same observation about my writing.
As I look to answer those who want to push hard at the Republicans, or to launch fundraising organizations to match those on the right, I am still looking for a "Higher Way" for civil debate. And while I don't have enough of an answer to satisfy me, some things I've read in the last three months speak strongly that such a search is preferable to the tit-for-tat strategies that have characterized our political dialogues for a couple of decades.
As I've read books by a biblical theologian, a British social theorist, and a moral philosopher, I find some common ground in the search for this Higher Way.
The biblical theologian is N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham for the Church of England. In his book After You Believe, he argues that our task as Christians is be living the coming Kingdom. His interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and Paul's Epistles calls us to celebrate the Image of God in others and thereby show the world the contours of this kingdom that is both to come and unfolding in our midst.
The British social theorist in Anthony Giddens. He has done amazing work in articulating the mechanisms through which society reproduces itself over time through a process of Structuration (don't ask). The very short version is that through repeated interactions we define ways of describing the world which then shape future interactions. Societies shift as these various processes tying individuals to larger organizational groupings are reshaped. Because we're in the midst of it at the time and the changes take significant time to unfold (often generations), we're not duly attentive to what's happening around us. He's not just an excellent social theorist but is also active in European politics and has written about the nature of globalization and how we need a "left of center" government he calls The Third Way.
I'm currently reading Justice, by Michael Sandel, philosophy professor at Harvard. It's a remarkable book that talks about how we together define a good society. He argues, following the work of John Rawls, that we should understand our lives together in terms of an idealized society rather than pursuing our self-interests. He talks about how Kant called us to hypothetical ideals as opposed to views of utilitarianism, libertarianism, or arbitrary free markets.
All three of these authors would support my position that the nature of productive civil discourse needs to be re-imagined. We don't want more of the same "in your face" kinds of dialogue. We need to search for justice for all, replicate those structures that support that effort, and commit to partnering with God as He births his Kingdom.
Let me insert two more pragmatic reasons why I'm calling for more abstract notions of the Common Good. First, what we are doing just plain doesn't work at its core. Years ago when I was teaching social psychology our textbook had a wonderful section on negotiation. I can't remember all of the required components, but the one that has always stayed with me was the need to support the legitimacy of your opponent in the negotiation. Without that belief, good faith negotiation is impossible. I would argue that the name-calling of today's debates (especially when conducted through the lens of the media) destroys claims of legitimacy on both sides rendering fair conclusions near impossible.
The second reason is that Newton's Third Law doesn't work in Civil Discourse. Newton's Third Law says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It works really well on physical elements in the right conditions. But it doesn't work in politics. Every action has an accelerated reaction. What was the outrageous claim becomes the new baseline. And I agree with all my Democratic friends that the Republicans have been far better at raising those stakes in recent years than we have.
In a bizarre way, I'm proud of that. That's why I'm searching for the Higher Way. So I ask my Democratic friends whether progressives, blue dogs, neo-centrists, or whatever: let's redefine the rules of the game. Let's focus on the greater good over protected interests. Let's not demonize those on the other side regardless of what they say. Let's put the long-term Idealized Common Good ahead of winning.
Yes, we run the risk of losing in the short run. But in the long run, we stand for a vision of the civil society that can be well articulated, defended against attack, and will become part of rhetoric that reshapes how we live together in the ways Wright, Giddens, and Sandel suggest.
I also read Carl Hiaasen's Star Island and am halfway through Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I'm sure they connect somehow but I'll let that wait for another day.