I wanted to ask my acquaintance if he was experiencing a torturous mid-life crisis or had lost his mind altogether. That seemed too pointed, so I said: Why are you running for public office?
A rueful smile suggested this Democrat knew exactly what I was getting at, how politics has a way of transforming thoughtful people of good will into sniping, small-minded partisans.
Instead of listing a series of legislative goals, which I’m sure he has, he spoke about the bitter climate that clouds government at most every level of North Carolina, as well as the nation.
Essentially he argued that we must fix our politics before we can address our policies. I don’t know if I was more impressed by the deep reading that has informed his decision to run – including “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levistsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and “The Once and Future Liberal” by Mark Lilla – or his deeper humility.
He feared that he, too, might succumb to the system, caught up like so many others in the Manichaean mentality that sees compromise as betrayal, declaring, “First, we must thoroughly defeat the dangerous forces that represent half the country by any means necessary. Then we will do good.”
Given the electoral math, such supremacy is illusory. As a result we are locked in an unending, unyielding and unproductive battle. Just a few years ago, I told him, I was among those who compared our politics to sports, with Democrats and Republicans the rough equivalent of Duke and Carolina fans.
Today, we are more like the Israelis and the Palestinians having worked so hard not just to disagree with but to delegitimize “the others” that we live in separate realities that intersect at just one point: the idea that compromise is not just wrong but immoral.
As the NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt noted in an address last year focused on American education, this broad mindset has impoverished our ability to think and communicate. Instead of using reason to wrestle with complexity, we embrace give no quarter rhetoric that replaces argument and counter-argument with sweeping, morally tinged assertions.
“Many students,” Haidt said, “are given just one lens [through which to interpret issues] – power. Here’s your lens, kid. Look at everything through this lens. Everything is about power. Every situation is analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult. It’s a fundamentalist religion. It’s a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety and intellectual impotence.”
We’re in so deep, it’s hard to see a way out of this intellectual prison. But, I told my acquaintance, a starting point is two books written by Peter H. Schuck, a professor emeritus of law at Yale: “Why Government Fails So Often” and “One Nation Undecided.”
As he applies his immense erudition to important and contentious issues – including inequality and poverty, immigration, affirmative action and religion – Schuck provides a master class in how to think about public policy. He recognizes the necessity of squishy and divisive considerations involving rights and values that so dominate our discussions. But he urges us to go beyond assertions of “the right thing to do” to ask whether policies we favor are effective.
In “One Nation Undivided,” Schuck says that once we have identified a problem – whether its immigration, climate change or the impact of money on politics – “clear thinking” requires us to use “factual information” to draw up a series of alternatives that should be assessed by their “consequences,” their “trade-offs” and their feasibility.
None of that is surprising. But consider how rare such common sense thinking is, how often our leaders and pundits pronounce goals without addressing whether they are feasible or detailing the costs and benefits. Will raising teacher pay significantly improve educational outcomes? Would a moratorium on fracking hurt the economy?
These trade-offs are key, because they are often the arguments made by the other side. Recognizing them helps us become clearer thinkers and more generous human beings.
I hope my acquaintance wins his race because I think he sees that, for now, anyway.
This column ran in the News & Observer of Raleigh on May 11, 2018.