Just after Election Day, I saw room for optimism. Republicans had gained seats in the House, limiting the Democrats’ power to jam through partisan legislation. Many of the newly-elected Republican representatives were moderate ones from diverse backgrounds: Among them were two of the first three Korean American women ever elected to Congress. Donald Trump was defeated, and Joe Biden—a candidate running on a promise to restore the soul of the nation—won.
In the Senate, Susan Collins and fellow moderates like Joe Manchin emerged with the ability to play a decisive role in American politics. A divided government effectively run by moderates like Biden and Collins seemed to herald an American political future in which Donald Trump and his toxic brand of politics were relegated to the sidelines. For the first time in four years, I had hope.
That hope was clearly misplaced. There’s no end in sight to the political trench warfare that has become the norm in America. Whether or not Biden is as moderate as he claims—the early indicators aren’t promising—or Democrats win control of the Senate, in a country where far too many Americans believe the presidential election was rigged, there is little hope for a détente. Our politics are simply too fundamentally broken to allow for a quick abandonment of Trumpism; there are deeper issues preventing any sort of return to normalcy. One of these is a fundamental misconception of what politics is—a misconception that many on both sides of the political spectrum have adopted.
This misconception is the reverse of Carl von Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is politics by other means.” In 21st-century America, many have come to view politics as war by other means. On the Trumpian right, politics is a war fought to “own the libs,” to spit in the face of liberal elites. This political brinkmanship has often devolved into physical violence; it’s actively conducive to it. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, far too many members of the progressive left have come to see politics as an epic struggle against a regressive status quo. They have long since taken their political gloves off by popularizing court-packing, fervently advocating for dogmatically progressive constitutional amendments, and even rationalizing violence, all in the name of a progressive political crusade. This sort of environment has eroded the deliberation and rational discourse our government depends on, making our democracy dysfunctional. There’s clearly a lot of work to do to make normalcy feasible; it begins by bringing back the classically liberal conception of politics and making discussion possible again.
To start, let us reestablish the importance of good-faith political discourse, a rarity in today’s America. Unfortunately, it has become common to hear Trump supporters paint their opponents as immoral individuals bent on destroying America; talking to such people in good faith is worthy of ridicule. Similarly, a common progressive refrain asks, “Why should I engage with someone who wants to take away peoples’ rights?” The answer to such questions lies in the idea of intellectual humility—the idea that even one’s most cherished beliefs must be open to scrutiny. All of us are human, are fallible, and understand the world imperfectly. It is important to remember that nearly all of our positions, including those on topics as fundamental as human rights, are based on philosophical assumptions, often ones fairly disputed by those on the other side of the aisle. An awareness of this reality—a cognizance of the fact that reasonable people acting in good faith can disagree with you even on issues of immense moral significance—is what allows democratic citizens to maintain civility and mutual respect; it allows them to foster a productive civic discourse of the sort that we’re lacking today. It is our loss of this awareness, our collective intellectual hubris, that is undermining our national dialogue.
In opposition to efforts to restore our national discourse stands an insidious narrative percolating throughout the country, particularly on college campuses: The idea that good-faith discussion with those with whom we morally disagree is impossible because speech is violence. This claim—which is important to address—is based on the presupposition that the psychological harm that offensive speech causes is tantamount to violence. It is important to note that such a definition of violence is not only devoid of meaning but also devalues physical violence. It’s also fundamentally incompatible with the traditional conception of freedom of speech that we must embrace if we are to reinvigorate our political discourse: The right to provoke, shock, and offend is essential to any democratic society. If we are to restore good-faith discussion to American politics, we must staunchly reject any conception of speech as violence.
Besides relearning the value of discussion, it is also important that we do the same for compromise. To borrow from Pete Buttigieg, we must reject any politics that says “if you don’t go all the way to the edge, it doesn’t count. A politics that says it’s my way or the highway … beats people over the head and says they shouldn’t even be on their side if [they] don’t agree 100 percent of the time.” Politics is complicated, and none of us have the entire truth; it is important that we recognize our political opponents’ perspectives as valid and work to build a world with them in mind.
From a more practical perspective, there’s no getting around the reality that we live in a divided country where no political group has the power to unilaterally impose its will. Regardless of what part of the political spectrum you fall on, if you want something done, you’ll need to support compromise—even if it’s sometimes distasteful. History is full of models to follow; for example, the New Deal could not have passed without the concessions it made to Southern Democrats. Today, America needs a similar ethos, a universal willingness to compromise for the sake of pragmatic objectives.
Fundamentally, we need to be humble. We need to accept that we don’t have all the answers and that the “other side” is worth listening to; we must learn to talk to each other again. In a similar vein, it is important that we reject political puritanism and accept the value of compromise. Maximalist populist politics have led us to the unmitigated disaster that we are in today; it is time to lay the groundwork for an era of political coexistence, if not consensus. Let us preach the value of discourse and the merits of compromise. It’s long past time to get out of the trenches.
The author of this piece wants everyone to try to be open-minded and avoid sanctimonious moral absolutism; he hopes you help make America a functional country again. Throughout this semester, he’s appreciated your feedback on his work. If you wish to give him some more, please do so at email@example.com.
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