So we avoided the fiscal cliff, kind of. While Washington has come to an agreement for now, the rest of the problems are going to get solved later. And by that I mean later we’ll decide we still can’t solve them and continue putting it off. Why? Why is our political system like this? There are lots of reasons, but there is one that I believe we have control over. Everyone is becoming more partisan.
Americans are watching the news they want to see, surrounding themselves with people of like political minds, even moving to places where people are more likely to share their views. Of course not everyone is doing this, but it’s demonstrable that most people are. There’s a reason why Fox News shows have the highest ratings; they’re supplying something that is greatly in demand.
We’ve got to stop doing this. As a people, we’re electing politicians that are further from the center, on both sides, than we have at any time in the last 90 years. Today, most districts or states are not considered competitive. Being completely intransigent on issues of national importance is not likely to cost most people in congress their seats. In fact, Americans have been voting out politicians who reach across the aisle. Several well known (relatively) centrist republicans have lost in primaries to more right-wing challengers. The Blue Dog caucus, a once influential group of conservative Democrats, has been voted almost entirely out of congress.
I have a recommendation. It is not a cure; at best it’s a partial remedy, but I think it might enrich our personal lives as well as our political lives: let’s try to weigh the most charitable interpretation of our opponents’ ideas and arguments, rather than the least. Let’s try to imagine we might be wrong.
Some convictions run bone deep, and that’s a good thing. But let’s try to be aware of and honest about what we don’t know. For example, I’m fairly liberal on social issues. I believe people should be able to marry whomever they choose and that every person should be paid equally for equal work. I’m not going to change my mind about those things. However, I don’t understand how the economy works. Furthermore, I’m convinced that no one understands it well enough to accurately predict what’s going to happen next year or even next month with any consistency. There’s pretty staggering proof of this.
Most people certainly act like they understand the economy though. When Republicans say that raising taxes on the rich will slow economic growth, part of me thinks bull shit, but the reality is I have no idea whether this is true or not. It sounds a lot like a ploy to help the rich and screw the poor, but it may not be. To Republicans, Democratic policies of higher taxes and more social programs sound like a scheme for buying votes from the poor at the expense of the nation’s long term health. There’s certainly some evidence for that point of view (our current financial crisis, for example, can’t be solved simply by raising taxes; pretty much everyone agrees that we have to cut entitlements too — entitlements put in place mostly by Democrats).
To be clear: I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t try to form an opinion with the best facts available to us, or that we’re responsible for reading the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal every day. But maybe our arguments don’t all have to be so vehement and poisonous. Maybe we can learn more about the issues that we don’t fully understand through a slightly more cordial debate. Maybe an argument about how to tackle our debt doesn’t need to get kicked down the road because we vote out the kind of people who compromise.
Political parties tap into a tendency we have as human beings to be part of a group, to belong in one and compete with others. I believe that we can overcome this baser inclination. We certainly can’t expect to fix the culture in Washington. We can’t get rid of special interest groups, or make the people who are fit to govern run for office. Let’s focus on what we can do. Let’s at least try to vote for people over party, for pragmatism over idealism. Let’s try not to demonize people who disagree with us. Let’s do our part to get something done.