The news of the day has proclaimed victory for liberals and defeat for conservatives. For the record, I’m a strong advocate of marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, so I am among the happy ones. That being said, I wonder about the binary characterization of contemporary politics. One is either conservative or liberal. Each side enjoys limited degrees of variation that range from far right or left extremists to just plain conservative or liberal. Between the two is a chasm as deep and unbridgeable as that between Dives and Lazarus, so that none may pass over from one side to the other. It’s a rock solid article of faith for our most popular news sources echoed by Internet denizens and barstool pundits. Any conversation begins with an unshakeable assumption that the other is a liberal or conservative; whatever is first said opens the door, shoves the other through to one side or the other, and slams it shut behind. One side must be correct in its views or it must be wrong. Which it is depends on which side of the chasm one is on. There is no room for being anything other than right or wrong.
I tend to think of myself as more liberal than conservative, but I’m also a realist. The world is not black and white. It is a complexity of competing forces working their way out in an observable direction. I prefer political options to be pragmatic and evidence based, but I recognize that political decisions are often neither. There is no purity in politics, and those who think there is, or that there should be, are deluded. Given opportunity they can be so unwilling to bend that nothing can get done. At their worst, they are dangerous.
It seems unlikely that we will ever do away with binary political thinking. It’s been around too long, and it’s spread too widely around the globe. But it can be kept in check. When nations have failed to do that they experience and the world suffers from Fascist, Stalinist, Islamist, you name it, violence, oppression, and authoritarian rule. We have not been immune. America has come close to succumbing from time to time through such movements as the KKK, America First, No Nothings, and the like. Tea Party types, and their cognates, are not far away.
Conversation across the chasm is what can help keep binary political thinking in check. Dives and Lazarus may not have been able to cross from one side to the the other, but conversation was possible, especially as mediated by Father Abraham. We don’t know how it turned out. The parable ends without telling us, but it also ends with possibility.
The possibilities are there. It can work. One friend, for instance, claims to be a doctrinaire conservative who can’t stand Obama. We talk every week. Listening to him and asking questions, I’ve discovered that he’s not as doctrinaire as he claims.. He’s committed to the preservation of the land in environmentally responsible ways. He worries about the best way to help feed the poor, house the homeless, and care for the mentally ill. He’s asked enough of his own questions to discover that I’m not the far out leftie he feared. I believe in the importance of personal responsibility, dislike government programs that do little more than throw money around, and have little patience with bureaucracy (corporate or public). In our points of disagreement we can search for options. Sometimes we find them, sometimes we don’t.
The thing about conversation is that it requires listening, active, inquisitive listening. There’s the rub. Active, inquisitive listening is what we want someone to do for us, not what we want to do for another. Active, inquisitive listening is hard work, sometimes boring work, and often infuriating work. Why should I have to be the one to do it, especially when I have so much to say?