LAST YEAR I read a terrific book by Adam Goodheart called 1861: The Civil War Awakening. As the title suggests, it’s about the eve and early hours of the American Civil War and the myriad factors that pushed the nation inevitably into it. Goodheart paints a vivid picture of a nation so profoundly fractured and its citizens so jaded by any possible last-ditch compromises that war became truly – and sadly – the only logical next step.
The tension Goodheart described felt a lot like what I was feeling in 2011, and now, on Election Day 2012, I feel it just the same. Please don’t misunderstand me: I didn’t think then we were on the precipice of a 21st century America civil war, and I still don’t. To say so would be overly alarmist and minimize how badly damaged America was in 1861.
But the sense that the conflict is unstoppable and, yet, unsustainable is all too familiar today. That's why I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that, whoever wins the White House and Congress today, their biggest challenge will not be rescuing the budget, boosting the economy, solving the health care conundrum, grappling with the flaring conflicts and looming security threats around the world and settling our strained relationship with nations such as China.
Tough and important as those are, our leaders’ biggest and maybe most difficult problem will be defusing a highly fraught social and political atmosphere that pervades all of public discourse these days. Indeed, it’s obvious that we can’t solve the big problems because we don’t have a modus operandi and a modicum of trust for moving ahead. Today (and for a while now) we have two large blocs of Americans who not only disagree about what should be but also about what is. It’s hard to find common ground and to solve problems when there are two often competing views of reality.
I fancy myself as rather post-partisan – that is, able and willing to look past what my preferred party and ideological peer group says. But that’s probably more wishful thinking than anything. No one, certainly not I, can be completely free of partisan bias.
Like so many others, I see mostly wrongheaded thinking and misperception on the other side of the spectrum and sensible, practical thinking on mine. And, in case my other blog posts aren’t obvious enough, I’m also burdened by the firm belief that the “other guys” are mostly responsible for the vituperation, intellectual dishonesty and vicious partisanship that has so poisoned the air and paralyzed our problem solving in the last number of years. But I accept, too, that they probably feel, with equal conviction, the same about “our guys.” That’s what we’re dealing with.
If I were President (oy vey), I’m not sure I’d know what solution to try first. This is really hard, especially for either Obama or Romney, men who are so strongly disliked and mistrusted by those who oppose them. They have to be part of the solution to this, but surely can’t do it alone. Who else is responsible? Media? Politicos? Citizen activists? Entertainers? Business leaders? Unions? Yes, all of those and more.
I’m sure political philosophers and civil society experts are way ahead of me on this, but I can think of at least a few values that all of us need to embrace if we’re going to move away from constant and continued conflict. I’d like to hear what others might add too.
- We need a little less sanctimony, the sense that we alone stand on the highest and holiest ground. Maybe that’s true for some of us at fleeting moments in our lives, but not as much as most of us probably think.
- We need a little more compassion. I don’t mean love or even respect, though those are nice values, too. I mean a real effort to understand where that other person or party is coming from and why. That won’t – and needn’t – require me to abandon my position for someone else’s. Indeed, we probably better understand our own views the more we get to know others’.
- We need a lot less presumption. Too often, based on only a snippet (sometimes unintelligible) of information, we form strong assumptions about what our adversaries (or even fellow travelers) are thinking or about what motivates them. Whether he is trying to trigger class war or motivated by racism, we presume to know precisely what’s going on in that other person’s head, even when we’re really only reading tea leaves.
- We need more honesty, about ourselves and others. As Mark Twain once said, “When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends."
- We need to see one another as real human beings not as abstractions. It’s so easy, and misleading, to “know” everything about another person by relying on shorthand labels like “liberal,” “conservative,” “socialist” or “libertarian.” I do this all the time and am constantly surprised by how, when I meet a real, live person from one of those categories, they often don’t fit as neatly as they should.
- We need a lot more humility. That is, we have to develop the capacity to recognize that we’re not always right and to declare ourselves more gently when we are right.
Universal values? Basic decency? The stuff we were supposed to learn in kindergarten? Yeah, it’s all of that. Concrete and comprehensive enough to heal a nation? No, not even close. But this is what our nation should be talking about immediately, tomorrow morning. This is the most urgent item on our national agenda. The usual confrontation that characterizes our civic life these days is killing us.
Our current slide into further incivility and division seems as inexorable as it might have to American citizens of 1861. I'm hard pressed, frankly, to figure how we might truly turn it around. But while the citizens of 1861 had, by that time, exhausted all hope that conflict was avoidable, we can still save the day. We have no other choice.