(Originally appeared in LoudounNow)
We all deserved what we have gotten in the first two Presidential debates. Maybe our fallen sinful nature did not bring us #Herself7.1.1 and #CheetoJesus, but we still deserved it, and here’s why: At some point we decided that we should stop talking about certain things, precisely because they are too important.
“I don’t get into politics” or “No politics or religion in polite company.” We avoid it at work so as not to offend anyone, avoid it at family dinners in order to keep the peace, and avoid it with our friends, so we can remain friends.
Let us not go through the gory bullet points on why the focus-grouped automaton who hasn’t had an original policy idea since 1993, and the reality TV star who alternates between carnival barker and junta chief, are not ideal candidates for the chief executive spot.
And let us not entertain fantasies that this is the work of “extremists” taking over the two parties. The extremists lost the primaries. On the contrary, the reason we got the most empty candidates imaginable is that we, as citizens, have intentionally forgotten how to talk about politics, and thus we don’t demand it from our candidates.
For instance, maybe we could explain to our conservative co-worker that we do not actually believe that they want children, the elderly, and the disadvantaged to starve on the streets. If we listened, and they listened, we would likely come to some basic understandings about the goals of family, community, civil society, and even government.
If we breached the topic of abortion to our pro-choice friend, there is a good chance that we might agree on a couple basic things: like the fact that the rights of the mother over her own body can’t be simply dismissed. Or that late-term abortion, simply based on choice, is an objectively barbaric enterprise and cannot continue in a civilized society. Let’s start there, and even if we still don’t agree, we will know already that our friend doesn’t tacitly support the murder of innocents, and will feel further comforted knowing that they do not believe us to be out to get them and their rights.
What if a gay couple and an Evangelical couple discussed the topic of marriage to the point where they concluded, accurately, that one couple’s love for each other is not objectively more important than another family’s devotion to their faith. How much less could the parties use this as a wedge to divide us (not to mention fewer lawsuits)?
Our country was founded by people who strongly disagreed with each other, and we’ve forgotten that these disagreements are not a pesky side effect, but a necessary prescription for a healthy republic based on the ideas of liberty, equality, and justice. But for the sake of social comfort, we have given up a substantive dialectic—a deliberate search for truth through discussion—which leaves us completely at the mercy of the eristic—where the focus is solely on winning the argument and the truth is irrelevant. We should not be surprised then that the standard bearers of our two major parties can manage more than 90 minutes on national television—twice—and deliver nothing but jabs, snark, gotchas, and one-liners.
Sure, it’s true that deliberative politics in our daily lives can seem tedious, and at times even painful. However, we should not ignore that far from being simply a good idea, it is our sacred duty. Our republic has always depended on our allowance to openly talk about religion and politics, with comfort that though our friendships could occasionally suffer challenges, our communities and our republic depend upon this open disagreement.
So, the next time you hesitate talking politics, do it anyway. Simply commit to express your thoughts respectfully, and more importantly to listen. We will either learn from each other once more, or we will witness a continued degradation of the quality of our political discourse.
It is really up to us, and not the politicians. For no matter how much it occasionally looks like they are fighting it out, they are actually playing a very dangerous game, where the best standup routine is the winner, and the truth is not something to be discovered, but rather to be vaguely hinted at, alluded to, but mostly avoided at all costs.
For us, as citizens, one truth is undeniable: that if we shun open disagreement, we shall eventually have closed consent.