Our Need for Reasoned Conversation

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Thursday, December 9, 2004
Can we talk? 

I don’t mean by this that we should sit down right now and have a conversation, you and I. I mean it more literally: Are we, as a nation, still capable of talking with one another about the issues that confront us? Or have shouting, extreme polarization, pitched political battle, and unshakeable mistrust in the motives of anyone who disagrees with us sabotaged our capacity for reasoned discourse? 

I don’t think we’re that far gone, at least, not yet. But we’re certainly on dangerous ground. Anyone who cares about the dialogue of democracy ought to be very concerned right now. 

The truth is, our public air is toxic. I’m not just talking about the venom that spills out of talk radio or the bellowing that passes for debate on television these days. Even on the floors of Congress and at the podiums commanded by our political leaders, vituperation and disdain are far too much in evidence. We are, at the moment, a nation that seems content with harsh political debate, the artful distortion of an opponent’s views, and even the casual use of demonization and personal attacks to undermine the credibility of ideological antagonists. In addition, opposing groups too often are simply talking past each other, or not even engaging the other side in the discussion at all. This hardly helps us resolve the terribly difficult challenges we confront. 

I am not issuing Rodney King’s plea, “Can’t we all just get along?” I know that real beliefs and values are at stake, and that people in a country as diverse as ours are bound to differ, sometimes quite strongly. But if we are going to search for reasonable solutions to difficult domestic and foreign policy conundrums, much less build the consensus needed for the American public to accept them, we have to do better. We have to re-build a politics in which reasoned discourse is a bedrock value. 

How do we do this? I think there are several steps that people who value democratic problem-solving can embrace. 

To begin with, we should not fear differences or dissent, but welcome them as a vital part of democracy. Differences in a nation of our size and diversity are inevitable. The issue for us is not that they exist, but how we go about resolving them in a manner that allows society as a whole to emerge better off. 

We all need, too, to recognize our own fallibility, to understand that our own particular perspective on a problem need not be the only one. In fact, it’s helpful always to keep in mind that we might be wrong. As Justice Learned Hand once said, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right.” When people of opposing viewpoints are willing to give one another the benefit of the doubt– or at least to treat one another with respect– then resolving differences becomes much easier. 

At the same time, it helps to keep an eye on the proper target: resolving differences and reconciling views, rather than winning at all costs. Our system was not set up to further a particular set of policy goals, it was designed to provide a way for Americans to come together to decide what those goals ought to be and how to reach them. That means learning how to search for compromises in which everyone is at least a partial winner, and understanding from the start that political differences may be stark, but this does not make them irreconcilable. 

For the goal, after all, is to serve the national interest and focus on the common good, asking ourselves not what’s good for any one of us, but what’s good for the country. When we do this, it becomes possible to focus on a rival’s ideas, not his motivations or personal shortcomings. And that, in turn, makes it possible to have a genuine conversation in which opponents search for commonalities, and in particular talk about the concerns they share. 

Finally, we need to find a way of celebrating those who quietly maintain civility and act with respect toward their rivals. This seems a quick ticket to irrelevancy in the heated atmosphere of politics today, in which the loudest and most accusatory are the voices that get heard, but I don’t think we’re so far gone that the calm voice of reason no longer commands respect. It’s time to find a way of expanding the space available for it. 

At its best, creative dialogue is the very heart of a democratic system. It increases mutual understanding, establishes respect among adversaries, stimulates fresh thinking and new perspectives, and builds the consensus for which Americans so desperately yearn. It is not beyond our capabilities to have that kind of dialogue, but as a society, we have to make it clear that we want it, and hold to account those who get in its way. Our obligation is to strengthen those forces in our society that promote a reasoned dialogue, and to discourage the forces that make it more difficult. It is time, in other words, to get firm about turning the volume down. 

(Lee Hamilton was a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years and is now Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.)