Try listening to the other side in 2012 elections
The Kansas City Star
Last week, a friend posted an article on Facebook that slammed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tax plan. She captioned the link: “If you didn’t already know that Mitt is evil, this should convince you.”
Judging from the reaction, she didn’t “convince” anyone of anything. She did get lots of support from people who clearly agreed with her views already. She also got a few nasty remarks — comments she promptly deleted.
The next day a conservative friend had a mirror-image version of the same experience. He posted an overwrought Ayn Randish diatribe about the “evils” of socialized medicine. He got the approval of people who already agreed and had his profile deleted by a few of those who didn’t.
Nobody learned a thing. No minds were changed, and the opportunity to even have a meaningful debate was crushed. It was nothing but two small, insular groups competing to see who could agree with their leaders the loudest, growing continually more convinced of their own infallibility while dehumanizing the opposition.
Disheartening experiences like those aren’t unusual, of course. With the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter, such displays have become the norm for election season.
Each day brings a new torrent of political cartoons, charts, quotes and links — about Ann Romney getting snippy with a reporter or the whiteness of Vice President Joe Biden’s teeth — all promoting their message to an audience that’s self-selected to support it. The only change inside these dueling, twin echo chambers is the inevitable rise in animosity toward the opposition as the election gets closer.
Online, though, at least the deluge ends after the elections. The tragedy of modern American politics is that the same, polarizing dynamic we see at work in social media has been crippling Washington, D.C. There, whoever wins the White House or controls Congress, the moralizing, posturing and self-congratulation disguised as statesmanship never ends.
As the congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein showed in their recent book, “It’s Even Worse Than You Think,” the 112th Congress will be remembered as the most ineffective and divided in U.S. history. The death of fiercely moderate, aisle-hopping Sen. Arlen Specter couldn’t be a more appropriate symbol for an era when the two parties have grown more inflexible than any time since the Civil War.
Liberals fault the right — anyone from former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former president George W. Bush to former senator Rick Santorum, Fox News and the tea parties. Conservatives, in turn, blame anyone from former president Bill Clinton and Rep. Nancy Pelosi and CNN.
The truth is that Washington’s paralysis is less a function of politics than of demographics. If you need someone to blame, lay it on the baby boomers.
Washington’s drift into rancor and inaction began, after all, in the era of Clinton and Gingrich when members of the baby boom generation first entered high public office. Across administrations, be they right of Rush Limbaugh or left of Mao, it is the boomers who voted themselves the entitlement programs we can’t afford, and love ideological warfare and symbolic protest that turned, for instance, a mundane debate over the debt ceiling into a apocalyptic battle for the nation’s soul.
If there is an “evil” to be fought in this country, however, it’s not dependent on age bracket. The truly dire threat to the nation doesn’t come from only the right or left, or any particular generation.
The true foe is moral absolutism of any sort, and the only way to fight it is listening to those who disagree with us and accepting the possibility — be it on subjects as dull as tax law or as provocative as gay marriage — that the other side might just have a point.
Hampton Stevens of Kansas City is a writer for national publications. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.