To solve societal problems, we need civil discourse, and effective reasoning. Reasoning and civil discourse cannot be had without respect.
In order to function with respect, a discourse requires two things: personal dignity, including personal space and freedom from dehumanization (or the devaluation of one’s inherent worth), and acknowledgement of the positive attributes in others’ positions.
Once the frame of respect has been betrayed, two behaviors are sure to follow: exclusion, or defining an in-group that is acceptable and an out-group as unacceptable, and extremism — intolerance of ‘others,’ and dogmatic, unmovable loyalty to one’s own position. Exclusion is the overarching behavior.
Perhaps the most damaging element to this pattern is that exclusion and extremism feed each other, often escalating to violence and war. Once the frame of respect is broken, the pride of being right is guarded at all costs, without a thought to the expense of sacrificing what is right. It can seem impossible to regain civility — the first step is to restore a frame respect.
The Behavior of Exclusion in Parties
One of the most visible signs of Republicans becoming more extreme was when long-time GOP Senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, changed parties and joined the Democrats in 2009. In a excerpt from a New York Times article detailing Specters switch, Republican Olympia Snowe said Republicans were becoming more resistant, and inhospitable to moderates. She’s quoted in the NYT saying, “On the national level of the Republican Party, we haven’t certainly heard warm, encouraging words about how they view moderates, either you are with us or against us.”
The ‘with us or against us’ talking point for Republicans can be traced back to President Bush, after 9–11, in 2001. It wasn’t long after that it became clear the Bush administration meant the quote to apply not only to foreign countries harboring terrorists, but U.S. citizens who dared to criticize the president.
In 2003 the country band, The Dixie Chicks were effectively blacklisted for criticizing the President before he took unprecedented unilateral action to invade Iraq. In 2006, lawsuits started piling up from people who were arrested for publicly displaying anit-Bush messages. Before the 2008 election, Michelle Bachmann accused ‘liberals’ of being un-American, and robo-calls went out from the McCain-Palin campaign calling President Obama a terrorist.
But, in 2008, when Obama won the presidency, the rhetoric changed. It was now OK to criticize the president, question his citizenship, call him a socialist, Muslim, racist, un-American. The armed forces were encouraged to disobey his orders. Some Republicans have labeled the president a dictator, and one who fails to lead. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, even yelled out that the president was a liar, from the seats of Congress, during a presidential address.
Hate groups grew 54% from 2000–2009, and white supremacist groups have grown 900% since Obama’s election. Islamophobia has skyrocketed as well. Some Republicans have even suggested tracking, and banning Muslims. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented the rise of Right Wing Extremism.
Seven years after Olympia Snowe remarked on Republicans losing Specter, the party’s move toward extremism has alienated a mass of its own GOP members. The effect of the ‘us against them’ slogan seems to have taken Republicans right where Snowe predicted: “to having the smallest political tent in history.”
To believe some Republicans’ extreme rhetoric, one might think that Americans are in imminent danger from liberals and Muslims. For all of these Republicans’ fears of Obama being a Socialist, or Marxist, with no strong argument of this being true, it seems a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy that Sanders and Greens have gained so much support in the 2016 political season. Sanders, a self-described Socialist; and Greens who are anti-capitalists, and arguably communist, are now waging a popular revolution.
What exclusionary behavior among Greens might we find? One of Jill Stein’s talking points, aimed to get folks to vote outside of the two-party system, is to not vote ‘the politics of fear,’ but she herself ended a PBS interview by saying that the vote in 2016 is not about “what kind of world we will have going forward, but whether we will have a world going forward.” One can often hear similar rhetoric declaring that ‘there is no future,’ regarding climate, and the young generation.
Everyone is playing up the politics of fear, and it pivots on exclusion of some evil faction of our society. Who do the Greens have us fear? The mythical 1%, and capitalism have been the villains. According to Greens, capitalism can no longer contribute solutions to society’s problems. Greens advocate for social ownership of production, and an emergency Green Revolution.
‘Greening’ the economy is not a new concept, and even big transnational businesses see the imperative, and profitability, of ‘going green.’ The first quarter of 2015 saw 1.2 million new green jobs, and the green sector is one of the fastest growing sectors in business. A green economy is not exclusive to the Green Party.
The extreme exclusionary behavior of the Greens is the insistence of anti-capitalism. According to Michael Trudeau, who wrote what is called the Eco-Socialist amendment to the Greens’ economic plank for 2016:
“For us, being anti-capitalist means being for the democratization of enterprises such that all the workers in them and all the customers and residents of communities interdependent with those enterprises have democratic, equal input into deciding what they do and how they do it…
For example, if a surrounding community is affected by the production processes, the wages and salaries paid, the choice of technological change, etc., of an enterprise, then democratization requires that the residents of that surrounding community likewise have their democratic input into those decisions.”
This sounds much like communism. Under this impression, it is not hard to see how the anti-liberal Agenda 21 conspiracy theory made its way around conservative groups. Agenda 21 exists, it creates indicators for sustainable development, from local to international levels. It is voluntary and academic, based on best practices. But, when green initiatives are heralded as the definition of one exclusive party, and forced into a seemingly communist frame, the ideas shift from reasonable to extreme.
It is clear that our current capitalist system is capable, and flexible enough, to harbor sustainable transition, and integrate social democracy, so why be anti-capitalist and exclude most Americans?
General Progressives, including Dems
Moving more to the center of the political spectrum, there are a few progressive behaviors that stick out. Douglas Orbaker, in his essay, Talking to Middle Americans about Progressive Issues, proposes strategically nudging conservatives to the left one small move at a time, like the proverbial frog in the pot. The exclusionary behavior here is the initial presumption that conservative positions are wrong, and progressive positions are right. It is not likely that our best solutions will come purely from one segment of the political spectrum.
The effects of the frog in the pot approach can be seen in disturbing employment statistics in higher education, where conservatives are less likely to be hired, and their work is more likely to be ridiculed. Taking this exclusionary behavior into consideration, it is understandable that conservatives react by thinking that progressives are elitist and bigoted.
Two other categories are increasingly excluded from the progressive in-group — white, and men. Oppressive -isms, like elitism, sexism, and racism, are frequently filed under patriarchy, and especially white-supremacists patriarchy. While there is correlation in U.S. history between white men and oppressive power, the relationship is not exclusive.
Placed in historical context, vilifying and excluding white men seems vengeful, not progressive. The issue of patriarchy and power is age-old, and affects men too, as one of the original feminists, and gay rights activists, Virginia Woolf, wrote so meaningfully about in, Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid:
“The young airman up in the sky is driven not only by the voices of loudspeakers; he is driven by voices in himself — ancient instincts, instincts fostered and cherished by education and tradition. Is he to be blamed for those instincts? Could we switch off the maternal instinct at the command of a table full of politicians?…
We must create more honorable activities for those who try to conquer in themselves their fighting instinct, their subconscious Hitlerism. We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun.”
Critiques of racism do not exonerate progressives, women, or even radical left groups. If progressives did not exclude conservative critiques on liberal racism, they might see that some of these critiques line up with racial justice theories. Namely, that social programs often dis-empower people. If we want to solve racism, we need a comprehensive view of the problem.
Another, and perhaps unconstitutional behavior of exclusion that Democrats and Republicans share is the exclusion, and punishment, of pro-Palestinian human rights activists. Anti-BDS legislation is an exclusionary behavior that binds some Republicans and Democrats with Islamophobia. Several states have passed, or are considering to pass legislation that condemns BDS activists, and prevents them from doing business with the government.
Even Jews, suspected of being BDS sympathizers, have lost their jobs, or been threatened with excommunication from the Jewish community. Other pro-Palestinan human rights activists have been thrown out of school, threatened with legal actions, put on ‘Jew hater‘ lists, and been investigated by the FBI.
Diverse positions and input are proven to produce better solutions. We truly need each other to effectively solve our common problems, especially our hardest problems.
Libertarians take a live and let live position. So what might they be against? Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for the last two presidential campaigns, would like to abolish most federal departments and programs, if presented with the opportunity to do so. This exclusion, and extreme position, reflects a Libertarian devotion to small government, states’ rights, and individual freedom.
Cato Unbound published a string of articles debating Libertarians and their aversion to ‘the administrative state.’ Philip Wallach challenges the Libertarian perspective in his contribution to the debate:
“Although libertarians prefer to exclude anything involving state coercion from the category of “spontaneous order,” there seems to be a near-universal human tendency toward handling certain collective problems through government. Figuring out how that government can be a beneficial (or at least a benign) agent of social cohesion, and do so while retaining legitimacy, strikes me as the inevitable central question for all who dare to dabble in social theory, libertarians included.”
When is government administration needed? When might the greater good take priority over individual liberty? The balance is delicate.
Rebuilding the Frame of Respect
Democracy is an art — a competitive art. The fine details of public deliberation over individual liberty, and public good, can create a masterpiece of Public Virtue, or a warring cacophony. It is not likely that we can build a masterpiece out of one hue of the political spectrum. Nor can we, in a free and functional society, disappear any segment from the radical left to the radical right.
In examining the behaviors of political exclusion, is it any wonder that we see a rise in extremist behaviors? Is it any wonder that our citizens are angry, and our public houses of deliberation are in gridlock? Once the frame of respect is broken, and groups lock themselves into extreme dogmas, is there any other end point?
Rebuilding our national frame of respect, dignity, and ultimately restoring public welfare and freedom, starts simply. By conceding that each position has intrinsic value, and can contribute to informing our debates, we can re-start civil discourse. Focusing on what each position wants, instead of what each position is against, can unveil common ground.
Democrats are coming out the 2016 election season as the most artful with inclusion. After a campaign focused mostly on women, and fraught with controversy, the Democratic Convention displayed a glorious plume of American multi-culturalism. Clinton absorbed a large portion of the Sanders socialists, and even welcomed Republicans. Many Republicans accepted the invitation, and have joined the Democrats.
It is still to be seen whether these behaviors of the Democrats can set an example, or if their show of inclusion was merely symbolic, or worse, opportunistic.