I was recently on C-Span discussing civil discourse, was on the Newstalk STL radio show discussing it, and was interviewed for a piece posted at MLive. I thought I’d follow those up with a couple of posts encouraging civil discourse over the holidays. Here’s the second.
The gift giving holiday season is ending. My hope, though, is that we can nonetheless use the spirit of the holidays to the advantage of the polity by continuing to give each other the gift of questioning in the New Year. Questioning each other and ourselves is always useful, perhaps especially in politics.
Fortunately (and despite fears), the midterm elections of 2022 went well. There were very few worries raised about election integrity and those falsely pressing claims about past problems with election integrity mostly found themselves on the losing end of elections. While this is great news, we shouldn’t rush to conclude that democracy is now secure. We need, and should expect, more from ourselves than we’ve been giving. In particular, we need more from those we disagree with, whether they be family members, friends, neighbors, or people we know in the cyberspace of social media. And they need more from us. I hope more people can work on this and begin to satisfy those needs and, in the process, perhaps, give the world the gift ofsecure democracy.
Consider the sort of vehement disagreements we often hear about (or take part in) about who the best candidate is for any particular post. These are not new. We’ve always had them and likely always will. What matters is that we not devolve into thinking that the candidate we favor is ideal, completely above partisanship, ideology, and plain self-interestedness, while the candidate we oppose is partisan, ideological, self-interested, and out to destroy our lives. To pretend that “our candidate” is as kind as Ol’ St. Nick or that “their candidate” is as terrible as Scrooge himself would not be in the spirit of the holidays.
Those seeking our votes for political office usually have their own interests in mind. As economist James Buchanan pointed out, there is a symmetry of motivations between politicians and those in business (or any other area). Recognizing this is important. It means, for example, that a politician that promises something that seems to be against her own interests is deserving of our skepticism. Admitting that skepticism to each other—both to those who vote like us and those who do not—might be the single most important gift citizens in a democracy can give one another. This questioning—especially of own political parties—would reduce political rancor and polarization, promote more informed voting, and perhaps get us better political leaders.
Given the symmetry of motivations between business people and politicians, we should consider a standard sort of constraint we impose on business people: the expectation of honesty. It must apply to politicians as well as anyone. At a minimum, after all, we want our elected officials to be honest.
We have to expect that those seeking office will work to get votes and we have to realize this incentive might discourage honesty. We should, nonetheless, expect candidates for office to be honest in the process of campaigning and, if they win, while in office. We should expect them not to intentionally seek to deceive. We should expect them to answer any questions put to them forthrightly. (At least with regard to any questions relevant to the post to which they seek election.) If they are caught failing in this regard, they should lose our support. We should not vote for them, even if they are members of the party to which we claim some form of allegiance. Voting for the polity, rather than voting for your party, is another gift of and to our democratic polity.
That we should not vote for a member of the party to which we claim some allegiance requires that we reject identifying ourselves as member of that party. As soon as a member of “our” party (or other group) shows that he or she is not worthy of our trust, we ought not support them. We ought to care more about the values of honesty and trustworthiness—as well as the polity as a whole—than we do about party affiliation.
Consider committing to this as a New Year’s Resolution: I will question my own party as much as the other party and vote for polity over party. There will be times, of course, that voting for the polity will be voting for your party. At times, your party will have the better candidate. To think it always has the better candidate, however, would stretch credulity as much as thinking Santa lives in a Chanukah menorah under the sea.
I realize that putting honesty, trustworthiness, and the polity above party affiliation is a hard sell in our current political climate. To see that it is not unreasonable, consider two intraparty conflicts.
Reagan Republicans would likely endorse the recently proposed Federal American Dream Downpayment Act, which would allow people to start savings accounts with tax exempt funds to be used for a down payment on a home (similar to 529 accounts for college savings). Many Republicans, however, seem to talk about this as a socialist give away rather than a reduction in taxes to incentivize home buying. This is an intraparty conflict; the two groups can’t fully identify as the same.
On the other side of the aisle, it is very hard to imagine a Clinton Democrat endorsing anything like the populist economic policies of Bernie Sanders or the economic policies supported by those like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rooted as they are in “Modern Monetary Theory.” The details of those views do not matter here. What matters is that this is another intraparty conflict; the two groups can’t fully identify as the same.
Given those intra-party debates, its clearly possible to cleave space for individuals to accept parts of a party’s platform while questioning and even rejecting other parts. Doing that is part and parcel of the openness to discourse—disagreement!—that I seek to encourage. We can encourage this by being willing to question each other, the candidates we are considering, and the platforms of the parties, especially our own. If we can do this, we can more honestly evaluate candidates and policies from all parties. That would help reduce polarization. We would no longer adhere to a party line, endorsing a candidate merely so that “our party”—our team—can be in control. We would be looking instead for what is the best way forward. There is no better gift to give each other in these polarized times.
I urge everyone to make a New Year’s Resolution to question their party as much as the other party and vote for polity over party.