If you look to your right, you'll notice that the first blog I include among my links is "driftglass".
The author of this eponymous blog is an extremely talented writer, who does a great job of mixing eloquence and forthrightness. His brilliant use of crass language (e.g., fundamentalists as "Christalopithecans" and "Christopaths", the GOP's "Fuck Everyone But Me" ethos, Rove depicted as "Don Karleone", and so on) often seems an appropriate response to the vulgar sentiment that emanates from the right these days.
Nevertheless, driftglass is representative of a breakdown in American political discourse. He does not take positions counter to his own seriously. He answers claims with epithets rather than arguments. He is a master of the ad hominem.
Now, to be fair, he sees himself as responding to a rightwing that has abandoned argument and adopted similar tactics. If they refuse to reason with their opponents, why should he bother reasoning with them?
I have recently been having email conversations with my dear friend Ben on divisiveness in American political life. Ben is that rarest of breeds, a reasonable conservative. (But I kid! He's really more of a moderate.)
In any case, if not for Ben, I might not recognize that there are reasonable cases to be made, for instance, against the welfare state and affirmative action, and for the death penalty and abstinence education.
In studying deliberative democratic theory this term, I find myself often thinking of Ben. The reason that we are able to remain friends despite considerable disagreements is largely due to the mutual respect we have for one another.
Theorists like Gutmann and Thompson see this attitude as the central virtue of a democratic society. So long as we feel a need to treat our opponents as reasonable people who happen to have different values, that is, so long as we feel a need to justify ourselves to them when it comes to implementing policies that affect us all, healthy political discourse can flourish.
Chantal Mouffe, perhaps my favorite contemporary political theorist, calls this relationship an "agonistic" one between "adversaries", as opposed to the "antagonistic" relation between "enemies".
Enemies are those whose motives we impugn. We see them as incorrigibly evil, hopelessly ignorant, or batshit insane. In Rawls' language, they are unreasonable and should thus be excluded from political discourse. As a result of this, those of us who remain politically active increasingly find ourselves talking only to those who disagree with us.
driftglass is a paradigmatic case; he never tries to reach out to the other side. Blogs that have made such an effort--Left2Right comes to mind--have been dismissed by many as being in bad faith and elitist. I used to read and respond to comments on that blog before the feature was disabled, but by then I had long since given up on it. All too often, the commenters were anti-intellectual, seeing fit to respond to a professor's elaborate arguments with a wave of the hand (or just the finger). However, to be fair, the professors themselves did not always argue in good faith.
I like deliberative politics insofar as it is an ideal that would probably make for a better, more democratic nation. Today, the powerful and wealthy see little need to justify themselves to anyone. Candidates are marketed like laundry detergents while political dialogue has degenerated to the dozens. Civic-mindedness and public-spiritedness are at a nadir. Secrecy and fearmongering are used to silence dissent. The state of our union is not merely not "strong"; it's hardly worthy of the term "union" at all.
It's easy to blame this on the GOP. After all, prominent elements within it are eliminationist, endeavoring to create a one-party state. Sometimes, the only effective response to force is more force. And yet, I am not willing to give up the fight for a more reasonable public sphere.
The American left--if it can even be called that--is itself divided. Internal dissent abounds, and is probably partly to blame for our relative impotence. Nevertheless, I see it as our greatest strength.
Many on the right are intolerant of internal dissent and only recently have significant cracks opened on their united facade. These days, I often ask myself, where are the Republicans with principles? Why have moderates allowed themselves to be bullied into silence? Thankfully, people like Rep. Heather Wilson and Sen. Arlen Specter are starting to come forward to question the GOP leadership.
Perhaps we will see an end to the unholy alliance of neocons, theocons, bigots, and libertarians that comprise the modern-day GOP. Our democracy could sure use more than 2 political parties. (A split in the right would also allow for a split in the left, so that those of us who are not members of the Republican wing of the Democratic party might actually have a voice.)
Part of the solution is recognizing that us-them is never a satisfactory categorization of groups. Sure, not everyone will respond to reason, but many still feel the need to justify coercion. Let us make efforts to talk in good faith to those who are willing to listen. If we are to be partisans, let us be partisans of respect, reciprocity, and reasonableness.
We are all human beings here. Perhaps not all of us are inheritors of the Enlightenment, but many of us are. We mustn't lose sight of that. The Enlightenment gives us the hope of creating a society based on principles of liberty, equality, and justice rather than on the maxim that might makes right.
Those who still favor patriarchal authority, revelation, and intuition over democracy, science, and reason remain our enemies. But, in truth, this group is not as large as we sometimes fear. Many religious individuals are our allies here; they see the human mind as a divine gift that should not go to waste.
Ultimately, education is our greatest tool. When I teach class, I tell my students--and quite honestly I mean it--that I care little about the content of their opinions but ask only that they try to justify what they say with reasons that most people would accept. Yes, that means I am excluding those individuals who see human reason as an affront to God's greatness, but is this really so much to ask?
Can a nation thrive with absolutely no values in common? So why not encourage this one minimal commitment that opens the doors to a healthy pluralism that does not require violence to resolve disputes? Have we not had enough bloodshed, enough conversions at the tip of a sword or the barrel of a gun?
Can't we just agree to disagree?