Friday, October 23, 2015

Losing Our Political Perspective

I’ve been thinking about political perspective and the challenges it poses. To see what I’m talking about, let’s consider an example.

Not long ago, conservative political commentator David Brooks bemoaned the state of the Republican party, arguing that hyperbolic rhetoric had escalated into a kind of obstructionist extremism antithetical to the real values of conservatism and incompatible with what is required for being part of political decision-making in a diverse society. According to Brooks,

Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests. 
But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.

As Brooks understands conservative values, they include “intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible.” On this understanding, it is easy to see how conservatism would have a crucial place in any society, counterbalancing progressive voices that are focused on identifying and correcting injustices and imperfections in the current social order often to the exclusion of concerns about social stability and the unintended ripple effects of change.

But not everyone was impressed with Brooks’ piece. Among the unimpressed is psychotherapist Michael Hurd, whose blog of partisan political commentary seems to be especially popular among libertarians. Here’s how Hurd spins the very same practices that led Brooks to bemoan the dysfunction of the Republican Party:

When you disagree with another party in principle, then there’s not a whole lot you can do—other than hold to your principle. But that’s everything. Otherwise, there would be no point in having a separate party in the first place. 
Holding to principle is what Republicans have not done. They have caved to Obama on everything. This is what the minority in the Republican party does not like, and they’re entirely right.

According to Hurd, the problem with the Republican Party isn’t that they have forgotten how to compromise, but rather that they have forgotten how to do anything else. As he sees it, “The Republican Party does not act or function as a second party; it’s merely an extension of the Democratic Party.” His primary evidence for this is that the Republicans ended up permitting increases in the debt ceiling despite their principled opposition to ever-bigger government.

When I read Hurd’s piece, I couldn’t help but think of the strongest rhetoric among some Democrats, including Rep. Mike Doyle and (possibly) Vice President Biden. From their perspective, the idea that Republicans have been “caving to Obama” on everything is the very opposite of reality. From their perspective, Republican obstructionism has risen to such a level that it has become a kind of political terrorism.

This is especially the case with respect to the very thing that Hurd points to as a case of persistent Republican accommodation: the debt ceiling. For many Democrats, the Republican threat not to increase the debt ceiling is a prime example of right-wing radicalism: Because a failure to raise the debt ceiling could (would?) result in the US defaulting on its loans, (potentially?) producing an economic catastrophe the likes of which the US hasn’t seen since the Great Depression, imposing rigid conditions on raising it is seen as a strategy of coercion rather than political deliberation.

So, we now have three perspectives on the same phenomenon. According to an old-school conservative, core segments of the Republican party—no doubt in large measure as exemplified in the debt ceiling standoff—have lost sight of the party’s conservative values, undermining the party’s capacity for pragmatic engagement and reasoned compromise in the midst of diverse perspectives.

According to Hurd, the members of the “Freedom Caucus” of the Republican Party have simply been “standing on principle,” and the dysfunction is found not in their doing so but in the broader willingness of moderate Republicans to compromise in the end. Ignoring the question of what would have happened had no compromise been reached, Hurd represents moderate Republicans as accommodationists who can’t stand up for what they believe (and while he doesn’t explicitly mention Chamberlain’s accommodation of the Nazis, I suspect he had to resist the urge).

And according to some on the left, these same Republicans are the political equivalent of terrorists, insofar as they use threats with potentially calamitous national consequences as a tool to implement their agenda.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of news sources that reflect partisan perspectives has made it increasingly easy for people in society to live in an echo chamber in which their own perspective is reinforced and alternative perspectives are seen as absurd. Maybe that happened to me in this case—because when I first read the passage from Hurd quoted above, I thought , “Preposterous! Absurd!” I couldn’t even wrap my brain around the idea that years of Republican obstructionism systematically shutting down the government could be characterized as Republicans “caving to Obama on everything.” It would be like someone calling Gandhi a glutton or Syria a great vacation destination—something possible only if one were completely divorced from reality.

But maybe a certain distancing from reality has become an increasingly ubiquitous problem. Let me be clear: We can’t help but have perspectives. And some perspectives are more attuned to the realities of the world than others. But I worry that we have moved into a political world where our perspectives are less and less informed by an appreciation and understanding of opposing ones. And insofar as we fail to understand what it is that might generate an opposing perspective, we are to that extent distanced from reality.

This can be true even if your own perspective is right. Often when I come to see why someone has a perspective different from my own, my perspective remains unchanged—and yet, even so, I am wiser than I was before. I understand more than I did before. I can function in the real world more effectively.

I think Hurd is wrong. I think he is really, really wrong. And I think the depths and extremity of his error is largely explained by a world where polarization and media compartmentalization make it increasingly possible to simply reinforce our own perspectives in a way that is blind to the fullness of reality. But at the same time, I think that I am better, wiser, more insightful to the extent that I can try to understand Hurd’s perspective and where it comes from. Is there something in what is happening in our political world that gives his view—however wrong I think it is—some toehold in reality, one that I need to reflect on and appreciate?

We often encounter views which immediately spark in us the following question: "How could someone think that?" In the face of that question, we can do one of two things. We can just assume they must be crazy and move on, or we can try to find out why they think that. What I'm advocating is that we do less of the former and more of the latter.

Understanding does not require agreement. In fact, understanding helps us to better engage with those we think are mistaken, to explain more accurately what we take their error to be. And understanding can also inspire us to refine our own perspective, not abandon it but refine it in a way that makes productive debate possible, rather than just belligerent heading-bashing.

Here is my fear. Unless we become better at understanding others’ perspectives and where they come from, we are in danger of doing real harm. If one side sees themselves as standing on principle and the other sees themselves as courageously refusing to negotiate with terrorists, we wind up with a game of chicken in which neither side will blink. Each sees the other as wholly unreasonable. Each sees the situation as one in which, if disaster strikes, it will be the others’ fault for refusing to budge. And so neither side feels any responsibility to budge. And so disaster strikes.

Fortunately, we’re not quite there yet. But we are treading in that direction. Backing off from that trajectory does not require that we abandon our perspectives. Here, for example, is my perspective: I think the “Freedom Caucus” of the Republican Party is far more to blame for the current dysfunction in Washington than moderate Republican accomodationism or anything happening on the Democratic side of the aisle—although Democratic use of the rhetoric of terrorism is certainly unhelpful and should stop.

Understanding the perspective of the Freedom Caucus—reading the essays and arguments of their most articulate proponents, etc.—does not require me the abandon this perspective. Understanding why Mike Doyle (and Joe Biden?) called the Tea Party Republicans terrorists does not require that I stop calling it a mistake.

After all, understanding an argument is essential for knowing whether it is compelling or defective--and so, when I take the time to understand a defective argument, I come to know what is wrong with it in a way I didn't before. That's not going to make me change my view. Of course, if I learn that the argument is impeccable, I might be forced to change my view--but in that case, I should change my view.

Understanding can often inspire more modest shifts in my perspective—a nuancing of it—but it doesn’t always do even that. What it does do is enable me to see those who disagree with me as humans rather than monsters (perhaps confused humans, or misguided humans, but still humans). And even if they are guilty of intransigence and obstructionism, understanding what motivates that stubbornness might help me inspire them to be more open. At the very least, it can’t hurt.

So I'm not arguing that we should abandon our own political perspectives. But there is a higher-order perspective that we need to nurture, one that we are increasingly in danger of losing: the perspective on diverse and competing perspectives that helps us appreciate that there are different ways of looking at things, and that helps us see there might be something to be learned from understanding the perspectives of others even when they're dead wrong.


  1. I totally agree. So often we miss how much we have in common with those who disagree because we don't want to engage and aren't open to the possibility that we might learn something. Or worse, we give in to the temptation to morally demonize the other person to avoid having to engage with their ideas! I'm actually working on a documentary called Common Ground: Christians and the Message of Bernie Sanders in which we're trying to set an example for authentic engagement, especially between Christians and progressive political ideas. It's great to see other people concerned about this same problem: we are too often unable to see the common ground that is right under our noses.

  2. You really called Republican "obstructionism" terrorism. A little soul searching my be in order here.