Respecting your Adversary

In response to my piece yesterday attempting to call out the dysfunctional rhetoric of both sides in the current Congressional debates, the most incisive criticism I received on the Daily KOS version of my post was essentially that I was making a false equivalency between the critique of conservatism from progressive voices like MSNBC and the critique of progressives from conservatives like Fox News. The former being based on a mostly responsible analysis of the facts while the latter being unprincipled propaganda. In fact the commenter felt that the entire conservative movement over the past thirty years is at its base an unprincipled effort. Another commenter framed it that my frustration with both sides in the current legislative debate was…

Beating the dead horse of false equivalence between radical extremists on the far right and the center-right Democratic party, which constitutes the far-left of allowed US political discourse. Both sides are guilty of something, but not in the way the diarist thinks.

The commenters analysis of the US political spectrum may in fact be right on (as it were), and the Fox commentators may be correct as well when they say that the United States is in reality a center-right country. Looking back at our Founding Fathers (Wikipedia lists the key seven as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton) you could argue that Jefferson was the most progressive of the bunch, yet he owned slaves, was a strong supporter of states rights and perhaps closest of the seven to a modern day libertarian.

Regardless of the positioning of the US legislative mainstream on the left-right spectrum, my point is that I believe there are principled arguments on all sides of the political debate: conservative and progressive (and possibly a third liberty-based position). And if we want to continue to promote effective egalitarian governance in the US, people in each camp would be well served to acknowledge (while disagreeing with) the principled arguments made by the other camp(s).

I will acknowledge that even most of my progressive family and friends are quickly uncomfortable having any sort of conversation with a very conservative person about those prickly religious and political issues, let alone be forced to watch an hour of Hannity, Beck or O’Reilly on Fox News. Maybe I’m naïve, but I relish such discussions and as a “news junkie” even give Fox as much of my eyeball time as CNN and MSNBC.

But I am happy to report that my kids (who are both on the left of that linear spectrum) seem pretty comfortable listening to and acknowledging the positions of people on the right of the political dialog. For a while my daughter was a regular viewer of Pat Robertson’s “700 Club”, though she probably disagreed with virtually every position they put forward. My son, though an avowed atheist (and calls himself a “pragmatic idealist”, socially very progressive while fiscally moderate), seems perfectly comfortable in a political or religious discussion with anyone of any ideological stripe.

Getting back to the whole governance thing, I think it is crucial to being an effective participant in decision making in an egalitarian governing body to be very cognizant of the most principled and effective arguments of the other side. To in fact be able to make them as well as your peers on the other side can. Disrespect of someone with a very different position may energize some of your fellow believers, but does not generally play well with those key votes on the fence or even winning a favorable compromise with a person in another camp.

I think many people don’t appreciate this because they have not had the experience participating in governing bodies and coming to consensus with people with a very different take on things. This is where I think our public education system misses the boat by minimizing or even completely ignoring any meaningful role for students in the governance of their schools. What a different electorate we might have and different crop of legislators elected, if American kids regularly practiced the tools of egalitarian governance in the institutions where they spend much of their youth.

Imagine a US Congress where the majority and minority leaders could characterize each other’s ideological position in a positive light, while respectfully disagreeing. What a profoundly different dynamic that would be!

From my reading of recent US political history, the legislator and later president who exemplified this approach with Lyndon Johnson, generally as comfortable with and respectful of his opponents as his allies. To get a sense of LBJ in action, read Michael Beschloss’ great books Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory, with extensive transcripts from LBJ’s political and legislative phone conversations.

But today it seems the most admired, videoed, and quoted politicos are generally those that artfully dis the other side in a pithy sound bite. Obama seems to be mostly an exception to this, and I admire him the more for it. And I believe this propensity, though it does not always lather up the progressive “base”, will serve him well in governing in the next two years and winning reelection in 2012.

Bottom line, its all about applying the Golden Rule, the real one, not that cynical contemporary “corollary” that “he who has the gold makes the rules”. Or as Gandhi said, “be the change you seek”.

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