The only way we will stop being a nation torn apart is to find humility in ourselves. That word, “humility,” jumped out at me last Wednesday evening during a Zoom discussion held by my Amherst college classmates and Professor Austin Sarat. The topic was democracy.
Polling indicates that democracy, or saving democracy, has become a low priority for voters. Sarat identified three broad groups and characterized their respective reasons for disenchantment. I emphasize that I will be paraphrasing and elaborating freely.
First, for democracy-disillusioned centrists, government isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. Sarat cited examples of infrastructure mismanagement and hospital emergency rooms, where I can attest no one would happily go.
Second, people on the right feel their way of life is under threat, whether from immigrants or other ethnic groups. Such a fear is unlikely to render a group open to the principle that a democratic government should protect the rights of a minority.
Finally, people on the left subordinate the concept of democracy to their notions of social justice. This group would advocate for the principle that democracies must protect the rights of minorities in whatever form. The question is whether they can tolerate overarching majority rule. Liberals like me may be surprised to find themselves among those whose views might conflict with our avowed belief in democracy, but it’s something to take seriously.
A theme of the evening was that free speech is critical to democracy. With every right comes a responsibility, and free speech implies the obligation to listen. We need to have sufficient humility to give attention to views different from our own. If we’re canceling each other, drowning out voices with loud protests and posting our opponents’ home addresses and the names of their spouses and children, as Trump does to his enemies and J.K. Rowling’s antagonists have done to her, what remains of free speech?
One good reason to listen, which occurred to me after that evening, comes from Isaiah Berlin in the mid-twentieth century, when the world had been rocked by fascism, Nazism and communism. He warned that to be convinced you have the ultimate answer is dangerous. If you believe your cause is the only just one, you might stop at nothing to realize it. On the left or right, people today are certain they have the answers and that there is no validity to the claims and feelings of those they oppose. With centrists disillusioned, plausible consequences include stalemate, civil war and/or dictatorship.
I admit that when most politicians speak publicly, I soon turn them off because what they will say is predictable and unyielding. Where I do try to listen is to people I encounter in person or directly, such as through this website. I’ll give just four diverse examples.
A doorman in our building felt so strongly about the risk of COVID shots and the oppressiveness of the mandate that he resigned his safe job, where he was much liked, and has been floating from one unsatisfactory job to the next ever since. My instinct has me blaming Fox and other conservative media for propagandizing him with—wait for it—fake news. But why was he susceptible to that propaganda? I don’t have a good answer. I do know, however, that he’s a decent and responsible man, and I wouldn’t want any harm to come to him.
A politically conservative doctor I’ve been seeing for forty years lures me into a debate every time I show up for an appointment. We once agreed that we seek the same objectives and that where we disagree is on how to get there. A nice part is that our conversations are lively and sparked with humor. One time when I was about to be anesthetized in the operating room ahead of surgery, he walked in and asked me, “So, who did you say you plan to vote for in November?” To my mind, his sometimes harsh-sounding right-wing views are antithetical both to his exceptional surgical skills and his warm demeanor. But each argument he makes is undeniably logical and fully supported by facts. They cannot be dismissed out of hand.
I used to be on a charity’s board where I felt closest to a conservative bank president. I suppose he’d have been considered a traditional Republican. He and I rarely, if ever, discussed politics, but we did talk about the rewards we got from our work, his running a bank and mine running a consumer protection mediation program. Most relevant to our shared project, we agreed on how best to facilitate the charity’s mission. He died twenty years ago this spring, and I still miss him.
Finally, a former office colleague and still a good friend may hold the most right-wing views among all my friends. He opposed, and no doubt still does, affirmative action because he felt it put his white sons at a disadvantage. He knows I favor some form of affirmative action out of my belief that some groups have been treated poorly over the centuries and that even if conditions have improved today, the legacy lives on in punished psyches and damaged families. Yet I can’t deny the possibility that my friend’s sons might have lost out to someone with lesser credentials from another ethnic or racial group. Should I expect him to think outside himself and his family to the larger national and historical picture? It sounds presumptuous, a bit arrogant and, now I think about it, undemocratic.
Liberals need to recognize that conservatives in Florida, Kansas and Staten Island aren’t pretending to be unhappy. No, they’re anxious. Also, as Sarat said, this murmuring of discontent was around long before Trump rose to national prominence. That said, with Trump having given it voice and a face, the murmuring is now a yell. On the other hand, conservatives need to assess the causes and exact nature of their grievances.
How about a specific issue that divides liberals and conservatives? I’ll focus on immigrants because I can write about this one in relatively uncontroversial terms. I do mean “relatively.” I’m an immigrant, but unlike most who come to the United States, I came reluctantly, as a thirteen-year-old when my father was transferred by his American employer. It took some years for me to call America my home. I still miss England, as I would miss America if I moved back there. The countries are very different, mostly in subtle ways. Yes, many of the problems are comparable, from migration to race relations to the role of women. But what I’m talking about is England’s way of life: soccer named football, cricket, midday Sunday dinner, love of words and verbal jousting, respect for privacy that can amount to aloofness, fish and chips, GCE O levels, ancient little churches next to hilly and crumbling graveyards, the BBC, charming local accents, and so much more. When I take vacations in Britain (except there I call them holidays!), I settle back into its traditions.
From that perspective, I feel I understand Americans who feel similarly about their way of life. In fact, not just Americans as a broad category. Mississippians lead lives that are different in many ways from ours in New York.
I’d never want England’s way of life to change, except maybe at the margins. It’s my belief that immigrants settle at those margins, maybe making a difference but not so drastically that the country will transform into something utterly unrecognizable. I hold a similar conviction about the impact of immigrants on America. If anything, immigrants come here to benefit from those American values that the world has come to identify with it. They reinforce, rather than compromise, America’s traditions.
Maybe I’m too optimistic. Or maybe conservatives worry too much. Or, perhaps scariest, the expulsion of tens of millions of people and their forced migration will radically change the whole world no matter what liberals, conservatives or centrists plan. It’s a conversation worth having, and having over and over again. Shouting at each other across police barricades and through the echoing canyons of social media isn’t going to help us arrive at anything remotely resembling a consensus. Talking and listening might.
Those of us on the left need to set two goals. To boost the democracy-morale of centrists, we need to make government work. Actually, we need to make government work but also actively publicize where and how we’re succeeding. Biden gets this. Obama, a man I respect perhaps above all others in public life, did get much accomplished, but we didn’t hear enough about it. Biden also gets the other part: listen to our opponents.
I don’t take a position on Biden as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President in next year’s election, but I am struck by how these two factors make him the right man for the moment. However, I’m sad to say I’m one of those who frets about his age, which is (as my brother-in-law Ralph would say) rich, considering I’m a mere decade or so behind him.
That said, I firmly believe we need a man of Biden’s character and beliefs to stand for the party in order to defeat a man who would be dictator. For here’s another factor: Lies. Lies are the enemy of democracy. Lies are different from misinterpretations, differing interpretations, fact selection and the other failings in discourse.
I reluctantly accepted a long time ago that objectivity is unachievable. We can, and should, do our best to compensate, but we all have biases and prejudices, some of which we may not even see in ourselves. But Trump and his enablers have gone much farther by resorting to outright lies. That the January 6, 2021 assault on Congress was anything less than an insurrection is a public position that stains the characters of many leading right-wing politicians. That Trump lies when he says he didn’t try to conceal top secret documents is indisputable, no matter how the judge in that case may rule on the admissibility of the evidence. This is where listening must give way to condemnation because our listening isn’t reciprocated. When you lie, you listen not for reasonableness but for holes in your deception.
Anyone who questions democracy’s vitalness need only look to Russia, China, Syria and similarly repressed nations where freedom is as elusive as democracy. Sarat has good reason to argue that democracy needs to be the highest priority of every citizen. Though often painfully slowly, from democracy flows freedom, reform, arguably prosperity: all in all, the prospect of a better, and then yet better again, world.
After drafting this essay, I happened to hear “Reach Out in the Darkness,” a 1968 hit by a duo calling themselves Friend and Lover. It opens with the line: “I think it’s so groovy now that people are finally getting together.” Really? People didn’t get together in World War II? It seems to me that people in every era try in their own way to “get together,” even if circumstances make it difficult or they just do a poor job of it. In 1968, much of the focus was on relations between blacks and whites, a different emphasis from previous eras and long overdue. Still, the line has that overly confident, self-congratulatory feel that utterly lacks humility. We didn’t get together too well in the late sixties. We’re still trying.