Let me preface my comments with these words: I absolutely despise Donald Trump; I believe he is a despicable human being whose rise to the Presidency cannot be explained entirely with logic. How a madman with the capacity to undermine all the good progressive work that has been done since our country’s founding became President is beyond me. If the United States survives his time in office, I will inch just a bit little closer to believing in miracles. Given the man’s utter absence of morality and the lies spewing forth from his mouth and his fingers, I absolutely understand the outrage well over half the citizenry feel toward his every word. There, that’s out-of-the-way. Now, let me get to the heart of my message.
The strategies employed by the Democratic Party and its adherents (and I include myself in the latter group, but not the former) in the attempt to retain the White House badly miscalculated the public’s mood and, worse, ignored some very real fear and pain. “We” Democrats overlooked the fact that, in spite of all the good done by President Obama during his tenure, our priorities did not run parallel with the priorities of an enormous swath of the populace. What we believe is the good-spirited humanitarianism that drove our policy platforms is viewed differently through a different lens; if we remove our rose-tinted glasses, we might get a glimpse at the rage that led to a lunatic getting his hands on the nuclear codes. Almost as important, though, we might get a glimpse at how our own behaviors, and not just the policies we espouse, contributed to a backlash that—unless we take corrective action—will continue to erode our ability to make progress toward our objectives. Let’s remember that phrase: “our objectives.” We will need to revisit that in this discussion.
Republicans in general, and a number of independents—and a great many Democrats— view our liberal attitudes with deep skepticism and, indeed, loathing. They view our empathy for immigrants, for example, not as embracing humanitarian charity and decency but, instead, as evidence of our utter disregard for people whose jobs have disappeared or who believe our efforts to improve the treatment of and care for immigrants as a slap in the face of Americans who, in their eyes, are being ignored. They see championing the rights of women to control their own bodies not as an indication of our deep respect for individual liberties but, instead, as evidence of our utter disregard for human life. Our support for free (or even affordable) college tuition is indicative, in their eyes, of at least three fundamental flaws in our thinking: 1) support for the college-bound and college-educated suggests, in their minds, disrespect for those who do not choose college; 2) they see the commitment of free tuition as representative of a handout that does not require an equal commitment by the recipient (after all, tuition support to person who have served in the military (the GI bill) requires a prior commitment) and 3); ‘free’ is never free; they think we are astonishingly naive to think that money to provide free tuition will just magically appear.
Before we begin planning how we are going to correct such absurdly ill-informed ideas about liberals/progressives/Democrats, let’s look in the mirror, shall we? Progressives (I’ll lump all of us in one container for the moment), at least vocals progressives, tend to view Republicans with distrust and their policy positions with disgust. We view their staunch opposition to tightening immigration policies and processes as evidence of their inhumanity; after all, it’s obvious they simply don’t care about the plight of immigrants, even those who flee oppressive regimes in search of freedom and a more serene life…right? We assign sinister motives to their opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants. We view their opposition to abortion as evidence of their disregard for the rights of women and their fanatical worship of a fertilized egg as an indication of their warped understanding of life and death. And their opposition to free college tuition? It’s a hard-hearted effort to punish and subvert intellectual growth and development.
Both conservatives and liberals in recent years have become increasingly intractable in their positions. As they have solidified their philosophies around immutable ideas, they have built fortresses to protect those concepts from incursions that might lend flexibility to hard and fast positions. That amounts to an unwillingness to bend, even a little, on matters that seem injurious to certainty. Both camps, then, are unwavering in their insistence that only “their” side’s positions should find their ways into governing principles. Given the results of the recent election, that suggests that only one side or the other will get to have a say in the direction of the country. And, if the current administration screws up royally (as I fully expect it to do), then the next time it may be “our” turn to play the steadfast ruler who’s unwilling to flex. As the ball bounces back and forth from election to election, the divisions deepen and widen into lacerations far worse than political discord; they turn into social disintegration. I wrote those sentences as if they were forecasts; no, they are history lessons and the history is fresh and ugly and beneath the bandages are ugly festering wounds.
Remember when I mentioned “our objectives?” What are our objectives? Is our intent simply to impose our liberal/progressive will on a population that does not share our world view? And is it the intent of conservatives to do the same, relegating us to impotent entities that just happen to share their world, but not their rights and privileges? And who defines what “our” objectives are? We, liberals and conservatives alike, ought to ask and insist on getting (and giving) answers to those questions.
Ultimately, as humans first and Americans second, I think we need to come to grips with the reality that we do, indeed, share objectives that are—if we allow ourselves to admit it—identical from person to person, and from culture to culture. We all want to be, and for others to be, happy. Here, I use the term to mean sufficiently free of painful burdens to enable us to enjoy life.
Despite my frequent intractable positions on all manner of issues, I suspect I am like many people who understand, down deep, that no matter how fervently we believe in our philosophies, we know we cannot always have our way. We know we must compromise on matters of principle that we feel should not be subject to compromise. We know we must hold firm to our convictions, but we must identify a very few that are so supremely important that we would be willing to die or to kill for them. The rest are subject to compromise; not based solely on an economic model but, rather, on a model dedicated to reaching the ultimate aim of happiness.
I think that means liberals and progressives will have to come to grips with making some difficult compromises. The same difficulties will face conservatives. For example, liberals may have to concede that, in order to form a more perfect union, abortions might be restricted in certain circumstances and/or must be actively discouraged. And conservatives may have to concede that, as much as they abhor the concept of abortions, they may have to be allowed except in “extreme” circumstances. Liberals may have to be willing to tolerate much tighter border controls and more intrusive and harsher means of dealing with violators. Simultaneously, conservatives may have to force themselves to recognize that the price of democracy is the humane and caring treatment of people who, fleeing from oppressive circumstances, seek asylum in the United States. Liberals may be forced to admit that the potential costs of a burgeoning national debt included forced hard choices between Medicare and free college tuition. Conservatives may have to acquiesce to a higher tax burden on everyone, with an emphasis on high income earners, in order to ensure safety nets that they may one day need.
As I look across the country at the deep divides we face as a nation, I think I see ways we can scale back the growing hatred (and that’s not too harsh a word) between left and right. Both sides need to scale back their rhetoric and their stridency. I’m not suggesting abandoning any principles here, just adding a filter to the interactions, a filter including respect and decency. Attacking the other side as people is a sure path to failure. Attacking positions and policies with logic and defending those positions with rational arguments instead of rage can go a long way toward healing wounds. Rather than attacking the opposition as imbeciles (a tactic of which I’ve been guilty more frequently than I care to admit), we ought to argue against positions, while trying to acknowledge why an opponent might hold the position. Ultimately, I really believe we’re all trying to achieve happiness. If we can begin work by seeking to give one another reason to believe we’re looking for the same thing, we might be more likely to make progress.
The marches that took place yesterday across the country were, for the most part, positive examples of stating positions and advancing arguments. I think we must be careful, though, not to position those marches and ones like them purely as opposition attacks. Rather, I think careful messaging needs to take place to ensure that the needs and desires of the election’s “winners” will not be ignored because their happiness, too, is part of the outcome we’re all seeking. We need to craft messages that clearly articulate that “our messages” are, truly, “OUR” messages. We must enlist opponents to help us understand their needs and be willing to compromise so that their needs, and ours, can be met.
The suggestions, though they may only have been implied, that the progressive agenda would command every ounce of energy in a new Democratic administration, might have been the worst suggestions we could have made. I, for one, am truly and completely tired of stalemate and obstinacy on the part of both Democrats and Republicans. I am ready for compromise, though agreements reached through compromise will be painful for me to accept. If liberals and progressives deal purely in obstruction like their Republican counterparts did during the Obama administration, our desires and our dreams will go down in flames; and the conflagration will be deserved.