As a life-long liberal Democrat, I am going to say something that may surprise some of my friends:
We, as Democrats, have to stop calling Republicans stupid. It makes us look elitist, out of touch, and most of all (even though we try our best not to be), ignorant.
Yes, there are many reasons for liberals to be angry with the state of political polarization, and there are many reasons why the Republican leadership is to blame for the polarization that has occurred during President Obama’s time in office. Political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein argue that not only has there been increased polarization, but also asymmetric polarization. The Republican Party has gone further to the right than the Democrats have gone to the left.
It is true that the Republican leadership has obstructed President Obama’s efforts. It has outright refused to work with its Democratic colleagues, simply because they are Democrats. The Republican leadership has shut down the government, it has blocked a rightful nomination to the Supreme Court, it has voted to defund Planned Parenthood, it has denied climate change, it has failed to appropriately condemn members of its party who preach bigotry and racism, and it has played its part in creating the largest divide in the distribution of wealth that our country has ever seen.
However, we liberals cannot let ourselves off the hook too easily.
I am afraid to say that many political conversations that I have had at Haverford involve Republican-bashing. I admit that I have engaged in it myself. Some could say that Republican-bashing is the product of an environment that gives us the freedom to express our liberal political views without the fear of dissent. We take comfort in expressing our anger, and our frustration by calling Republicans “shortsighted,” or “unintelligent.” It is a form of catharsis, and it gives us a sense of power in justifying our political views with people who share them as well. In the face of asymmetric polarization, we feel that we need to puff ourselves up in order to look strong.
But we don’t look strong this way. This way, we do a bad job at defending liberalism, and we callously disregard the views of millions of Americans who call themselves Republican.
Republicans make up half the country – they have sincere beliefs about the role of government that should not be ignored in making policy. Republicans are our lawyers, dentists, mail-people, farmers, receptionists, cashiers, grandparents, and even some of our best friends.
We cannot fix polarization by thinking that “if only the Republicans would get their act together, we’ll get something done.” We end up sitting on the political sidelines this way, spitting sunflower seeds in their faces in hopes that they come to our side and apologize. We cannot afford to wait for natural revolutions in culture or society to be more progressive, because in order to change people’s hearts and minds, we need to be willing to talk to those with whom we disagree, and be truly open to what they have to say. We make our views stronger by taking in the views of others.
Some people may say that the key to getting the Right to think our way is to have them be better educated. These comments can be rather insulting and elitist, because any Republican would say that they have reasonable arguments for the way they think. They believe that making government smaller is good, because it would give the public more power in how the government is run. They are skeptical of the government’s role in regulating the economy, because they have faith in the free market to innovate new products and create new jobs. They have less faith in a government solution, because they are worried that writing laws to fix problems in our society may work to create more problems of bad governance.
As Haverford students who tout consensus-building, who believe in making decisions when everyone’s views are taken into account, we should be up for the challenge of respecting the concerns from our Republican friends. We need to avoid generalizations, and we need to make some concessions. We need to respond to our Republican friends by saying: yes, I concede that big government can be inefficient, but I believe that we haven’t even tapped the potential for government to make people, especially those who have been unfairly disadvantaged by society, more prosperous and free. I too believe that a free economy can work well to foster innovation, but every economy needs rules and regulations to avoid market failures, and to ensure that there are equal opportunities for every person to succeed. Yes, laws can be limiting, but we believe that big problems require big solutions, and, as history has shown, writing a law could be the first step towards great social change.
In reacting to the intransigence of Republican leaders, we cannot afford to be intransigent ourselves. We cannot refuse to work with the private sector to achieve income equality, because we need to work with them to do it. We cannot refuse collaboration from the Right in making health care even more affordable, because we are going to need their input.
It is a challenge to make concessions and take the high road, but democracy is at its best when people who disagree respect each other enough to hear each other out. This kind of attitude towards democratic decision-making is exactly what the Founders envisioned.
Haverford students should be up for the challenge, especially in this election.
At a time when Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican party with hate-filled and racist rhetoric, and proposed plans that would oppress tens of millions of people, Democrats need to preach compromise. This is how we are going to defeat him. We need to preach strength through negotiation. We need to preach respect for other people’s ideas. We need to speak out against hate with love. We need to unite with Republicans who are disgusted with Trump too, and find common ground.
We need to preach compassion for every American citizen, especially our Republican friends.