By: Benjamin Mumma
Mischaracterizations of the opposition are at the heart of the toxic political environment in this country. Instead of being an electoral season tradition as it has been in the past, today’s attacks on the character of the left or right come daily. The dialogue may go something like this:
“Profit-sucking bureaucratic namby-pambies!”
“No, you’re the Nazis!”
“Yeah, but it’s a Tuesday, so you guys are too!”
(As a side note, the amount of “Nazi” references from both the left and the right has reached a point of hilarity. I mean, unless a politician has been called a Nazi, a Racist, a Socialist, or some combination of the three there’s no way you can take them seriously. Talk about a bit-player.)
Even without these types of discussions going on, there are plenty of problems facing this country with no easy answer even if we work together. But turn on any news station for an hour or so, and you will soon realize how laughable the idea of “working together” is with the current environment in Washington D.C. For the most part, Americans understand how comical the situation in Washington would be, if our fates were not tied to the “work” that is done there. Indeed, a recent survey measured, among other things, how many Americans felt that it is possible to disagree about politics respectfully. The result: 87%.
There are two problems derived from this statistic:
- 13% of our country believes that they cannot respect someone who disagrees with their political views.
- Among those 13% are people (on both sides of the spectrum) who have an easily accessible medium to share their views with a large group of people.
The following idea will seem radical to the 13%. The 87% may not have their minds blown, but it should serve as a good reminder. Here it is, in bold print, the first of two statements that can serve as a base for a higher level of political discourse:
Regardless of political affiliation, everyone holds a philosophy that they believe will ultimately lead to a better country for Americans and a better world for humanity.
This statement is best proven by discussing the two exceptions to the rule: a lack of knowledge, and extreme self-interest.
Let’s take a look at the first case, a lack of knowledge. Everyone has come across someone who has political beliefs without a solid foundation of reasoning and fact. They exist on both the left and the right, and in either case simply hold their beliefs because of either their upbringing or circumstance. While a lack of political knowledge is unfortunate, it is not the main issue affecting our political system today.
The main issue with discourse comes from the second group of people, those who stand to gain an extreme benefit from the prevalence of one ideology over another. This consists of most of our current “political sphere” today: politicians, political commentators, news anchors, political activists, as well as the management of both corporations and unions. That is not to say that every politician or every commentator is out purely for his or her own benefit. It comes down to, as always, a question of motivations and incentives.
The motives behind a person’s political beliefs come down to a valuation between two things. First, the self-actualizing ability that a cogent set of well-intentioned beliefs can provide, and second the material benefit one stands to gain from a policy shift. For most people, the value holding good intentions is quite high, so it would take a large material windfall for a person to take on a stance that violated his or her beliefs.
Nevertheless, such windfalls do exist, and they are the reason detrimental policies are promoted on both sides. It is the reason people like Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Sarah Palin, and Michael Moore say the things they do: the benefit they receive is too great to ignore. Similarly it is why union and corporation management tend to promote policies (and the politicians that support them) that are not in America’s best interest. It is a structural problem, but there are ways to alleviate the harm done.
The second idea, even more radical than the first, is this:
Valid ideas and concerns exist on both sides of the political spectrum.
On this point, it is likely that many people differ. The ideological extremes on both sides would each immediately launch into diatribes regarding the merits of their ideas and the detriments of the other. This reaction is off the mark for one simple reason: ideologies are based purely on ideals that, while noble to support, do not constitute a practical method of governance.
Even though the theory behind an ideology may be strong (indeed all of them have very smart individuals involved with their creation and/or promotion), governance by ideology is dangerous because it ignores the variables in play. To demonstrate this, let’s look at education.
A conservative position may call for a privatization of educational institutions with vouchers provided to families giving them the ability to choose between many schools. A liberal position may call for increased funding for inner city schools to try to mediate the performance gap. Both of these ideas have flaws. A privatized system would result in huge logistical problems including instability (a school may be open one year, closed the next), transportation and transition issues (a bus routing nightmare), and the regulation of these schools. On the other hand, increased funding for education has proven ineffective to say the least, and it is quite clear that the status quo that liberals tend to support (due to the influence of teacher’s unions) is not workable even with more funding.
Despite the flaws, each idea does have some merit. How many of us can agree to both of the following ideas:
- All parents should have choices available to them when deciding how their child will be educated over the next 12 years.
- Our inner-city schools are weak, and improving the quality of education that lower income students receive is of vital importance to America.
So how many? Everyone? Good. That’s the way it should be. Notice that each side can provide valid concerns in the others idea. Yet when we take away the noise and the politics, we end up with two statements that are amenable to almost everyone and quite workable if each side can again put away politics in determining the actual policies chosen to work toward those goals. That will require concessions from each side. Yet when we look at education’s existence today, one could hardly call the required compromises “sacrifices.”
There are answers out there to every problem that we face. It is not that the answers can’t be dreamed up – in many cases they already have – but we are trapped with a political system that doesn’t let those ideas prosper. There are really only two possible ways to fix the system, with each requiring an unlikely shift in human nature:
- Calm the extremes so that rabid partisans do not control who wins a party’s primary.
- Energize the independents to become a political force.
Either path will take time, but you can do your part right now. For the far left and right, this is not a call to abandon your ideals – far from it. It is merely a request that you calm down, look at the practical implications of what you’re saying and, here’s the tough one, actually listen to criticism for once. For independents, stand up and challenge the extremes. Get involved and, actively work for a better political system. The future depends on it.