There is widespread acknowledgement that political acrimony and partisan polarization are at a record high within living memory. “Americans are more divided than ever,” proclaims the Associated Press. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton noted in her concession speech that “We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought.” And then the last four years happened, culminating in the Capitol Riot and the second impeachment of Trump.
I do not believe that our nation is about to die, but I do think that our democracy has been growing increasingly unhealthy. And in the long run – by the time my grandkids are old – I do believe that our democracy will have fallen apart at the seams unless current trends are reversed. I’m sure that it is possible to reverse these trends. I see no need to give an opinion regarding how likely it is: we are duty-bound to do our best, succeed or fail. And when I feel hopeless about the large-scale prospects, I comfort myself that even if the eventual downfall of our democracy is inevitable (as all historical precedent seems to teach), we can at least slow its decline and render it less painful within our small spheres of influence. I offer three basic suggestions regarding what we must require of each other and of our leaders with regard to political rhetoric.
When I use the term rhetoric, I do not mean bad rhetoric or sophistry. I mean any act intended to influence others, from advertisements to campaign speeches to protests. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and his second inaugural address are among the greatest examples of good rhetoric in the history of our democracy. Hillary Clinton’s impressively gracious concession speech is another example of mostly good rhetoric–for example, consider the following paragraph:
We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.
Here is an example of bad rhetoric, from a Trump tweet (pre-presidency) regarding the co-founder of Huffington Post, with whom he has political disagreements: “@ariannahuff is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man- he made a good decision.”
I have used Hillary Clinton’s speech as an example of mostly good rhetoric and Trump’s tweet as an example of bad rhetoric, but let me be clear that every political party and most individuals engage in both good and bad rhetoric. I would define “good rhetoric” as rhetoric whose forms and methods are good for our country’s health, tending to clarify issues and participate in a search for truth and not merely a grab for power. For those uncomfortable with the concepts of “Good” and “Bad,” we might equally use the term “sustainable rhetoric.”
The importance of our rhetoric can hardly be overstated. Democracy is essentially a three-step process by which the People and then their representatives make decisions: persuade, compromise, vote. There are various alternatives to the democratic process. The first and historically most common is that some individual or small group–a monarch or dictator or oligarchy–makes all the big decisions. The second (which historically leads to the first) is warfare: the strongest wins and imposes its will. These being the alternatives to the democratic process, it is critical that we remain able to effectively persuade those who do not agree with us or, failing that, reach a compromise without serious acrimony; or, failing that, submit to the results of a vote, even an unfavorable one, as the price of keeping tyranny or warfare at bay. I therefore offer the following three suggestions, which would go far towards healing the rift between the “Left” and the “Right” and preserving us all as a People capable of ruling itself.
Suggestion #1: Stop Attacking People Instead Of Positions Or Practices
Attacking a person instead of a position or practice is only a legitimate tactic when the character of the person is actually in issue. Even then, it is distasteful. “Ad hominem” attacks–attacking the character of one’s opponent instead of the argument–is listed as a logical fallacy in textbooks on rhetoric. We need to restore the sense of this tactic being distasteful and usually fallacious.
Name-calling is the simplest example of an ad hominem attack. While there may on rare occasions be a place for attacking a person’s character in a simplistic and abbreviated form such as “jerk,” “wannabe dictator,” or “libertine” (all labels that have been applied to Trump), this abbreviation comes at a cost, even when the character of the person is properly in issue. It is almost always more productive to back up and give the evidence and then draw a practical conclusion. For example, instead of “Trump is a jerk,” one should consider saying something like, “I don’t think we can trust somebody whose political tactics are so unprincipled as to habitually include personal insults towards his opponents.” The concept of “Trump is a jerk” is still perhaps implicit, but it is accompanied by evidence that could be supplemented or disputed as well as a practical conclusion (we can’t trust him) that is likewise conducive to dialogue. And importantly, its direct criticism is of a practice (the use of personal insults) rather than a person.
When the question is whether a nominee or candidate is suitable for an office of public trust, the character of the person is properly in issue. In most other situations of political rhetoric, it is not. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any policy debate where an ad hominem attack would have any valid place. Yet they are common. I can see no possible benefit from saying that “abortionists are murderers” rather than that “abortion is murder”–unless heightened emotion alone is deemed a benefit, which it should not be and must not be if we are to restore our democracy’s health or slow its decline. Of course “abortion is murder” is not exactly calculated to invite dialogue. If we actually want to be persuasive to those not already of our opinion, let us say, “it is my conviction that the law must define personhood to include any human life, including that of the disabled, unintelligent, or undeveloped–and therefore including that of a fetus.” And of course these three levels of rhetoric find correspondence on the other side, from “if you are anti-choice, you are a bigot” to “it seems to me antithetical to human dignity for a woman to be forced against her will to undergo pregnancy and childbirth.”
Suggestion #2: Stop Ignoring The Good Or Exaggerating The Bad In The Other Side
Close to the entry on “ad hominem attacks” in a rhetoric textbook, you will find an entry on “strawman arguments.” It seems like a good tactic to attack the enemy at their weakest point. And this may be a good tactic in war. But while the left and the right may have bitter disputes regarding how our government should act and what our country should stand for, they are not at war–and most of us want to keep it that way. If we want dialogue rather than destruction, then we should not only reject ad hominem attacks, but also give a fair appraisal to the positions of our opponents. If they are not hostile enemies but fellow countrymen with differing but sincere views, then we should strive to understand how a rational person could hold those views. Some might find this a frightening prospect: what if I lose my conviction? I hope that all such persons will have the moral courage and intellectual integrity to reject this fear with implacable loathing. If one’s convictions are allowed to rest on nothing better than straw men, then one inhabits a straw hovel that will be blown down by the next passing wolf. Such persons should flee to the open ground where approaching enemies may at least be seen while constructing a house of bricks worthy of a rational creature.
Wisdom does not require us to abandon conviction lightly–quite the opposite. But it does require an openness to all evidence and all perspectives. And it also requires that we value the truth of a matter more highly than our opinion of it, recognize the possibility of a difference between the two, and try constantly to bring our opinions into closer correspondence with the truth. The fear of lost conviction due to openness to other perspectives is nothing more or less than the prizing of one’s opinions more highly than the truth. It is precisely the enemy of true conviction.
What do we have to fear from a fair examination of the grounds on which hosts of reasonable and decent people believed in abominable doctrines? What danger is there in giving even Nazism or terrorists or Chairman Mao a fair hearing? Like Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons,” let us give even the Devil due process.
And when we reject a position, let us know what it is that we reject and let us represent it justly. Only then can we expect our opinion to count for something with those who hold the position.
Suggestion #3: Emphasize Common Ground And Not Exclusively Disagreements
There is a natural impulse in any policy discussion to skip the niceties and address the controversy. Common ground requires no effort to reach a resolution: it is pre-resolved by mutual agreement. But I would urge that we not skip the niceties. Niceties may be unnecessary if we were intellectual robots like Data who were never in danger of being drawn into the emotion of a dispute and disregarding the great mass of shared beliefs. But we are not. For the same reason that it is tempting to skip the niceties, it is easy to forget the shared beliefs and begin to see the other side as simply the enemy.
It is not only better for the Union to emphasize common ground, but also better for persuasion–if, again, we actually wish to persuade those not already of our opinion. One must show the other side that we do in fact inhabit the same continent in more than just a geological sense, and that our opinions that are in controversy in fact grow out of values that are widely shared. Those who believe women should have the legal right to choose an abortion should emphasize that they do in fact value motherhood and babies and responsibility for one’s decisions–which I believe is true of the vast majority of them. Those who believe that fetuses should be legally protected from abortion should emphasize that they do in fact value women’s dignity and bodily autonomy and recognize the economic and social costs of pregnancy and childbirth to certain, especially underprivileged, women. Starting from common ground builds trust, while launching a frontal attack predictably causes defenses to shoot up.
Conclusion: A Plea For Genuine Dialogue
I have several times mentioned that my suggestions apply if we are trying to persuade those not already of my opinion–if, in other words, we are trying to have a dialogue. Let me now add that if we are not doing that, we might be doing something harmful. We might be talking to those who are of our opinion with the goal of making their opinions more extreme and more dogmatic. We might be feeding the echo chamber dynamic of current political discourse. This tends towards increasing polarization, alienation, and conflict. It seems inevitably to tend towards civil war. This is not an exaggeration–we have already begun to see the violent fruits of this dynamic from both sides of the political spectrum, including (to select the most prominent among many examples) the Capital Riot and other far-right demonstrations and (on the left) the Black Lives Matter protests.
Indeed, rhetoric that attacks people instead of positions or practices, ignores what is good in the other side, and exclusively emphasizes disagreement is fundamentally violent rhetoric. It does violence in its very nature and it tends to incite violence in those who are receptive to it. Those who like me consider Trump’s post-election rhetoric to be unacceptable should take care that our condemnation is not an act of hypocrisy.
There is, of course, a place for Republicans to talk to their fellow Republicans, liberals to their fellow liberals, believers in a faith or ideology or viewpoint to their fellow believers. Such discourse should also be respectful and charitable and accurate when it deals with outsiders, but it may take more liberties with assumptions about what is already shared, and it is likely to have a different rhetorical goal: building consensus regarding methodology, fortifying and educating each other, etc. Many of the same principles apply. But what I am primarily addressing here is the need for genuine dialogue between the so-called warring factions–to remind each other that we are not in fact at war and are rather a People, the common heirs of Adams and Jefferson, Lincoln and Douglas, William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow. Let us have disputing factions rather than warring factions, and let the dispute be more worthy of our heritage than it has lately been.
To conclude, let me refer to two passages from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Referring to the two sides in the ongoing but almost concluded Civil War, he said:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.
This is a clear criticism of slavery as well as of those inherently hypocritical practices that upheld slavery. Lincoln does not mince words. But he stops short of judging the people whose practices he criticizes, even though he and his audience actually were at war with those people. My suggestions are pretty well summed up by Lincoln’s paraphrase of a Biblical commandment–“let us judge not that we be not judged.” Let us, in other words, treat our ideological enemies as we would want them to treat us, lest we find ourselves in another Civil War.
The second passage speaks for itself and should be allowed to serve as the period to this essay. The mission of America to be a blessing to its people and to the world has continued from Lincoln’s time until now, and its history has been a mixed one of fulfilment and betrayal of this mission. Its full history is yet to be written. Accordingly,
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . [and] to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.