My political friendships and sympathies are increasingly determined not by ideology but by methodology. One of the most significant divisions in American public life is not between the Democrats and the Republicans; it is between the Ugly Party and the Grown-Up Party.
The rhetoric of the Ugly Party shares some common themes: urging the death or sexual humiliation of opponents or comparing a political enemy to vermin or diseases. It is not merely an adolescent form of political discourse; it encourages a certain political philosophy — a belief that rivals are somehow less than human, which undermines the idea of equality and the possibility of common purposes.
The alternative to the Ugly Party is the Grown-Up Party — less edgy and less hip. It is sometimes depicted on the left and on the right as an all-powerful media establishment, stifling creativity, freedom and dissent. The Grown-Up Party, in my experience, is more like a seminar at the Aspen Institute — presentation by David Broder, responses from E.J. Dionne Jr. and David Brooks — on the electoral implications of the energy debate. I am more comfortable in this party for a few reasons: because it is more responsible, more reliable and less likely to wish its opponents would die.
That last paragraph made me snicker, because it’s almost a parody of Broderism. Yet, as someone who reads both Dionne and Brooks, and who has spent time in conversation with both men, I have to agree, mostly, with Gerson. Dionne and Brooks have their distinct views, but the impression you get in talking with them is that they respect other people, and don’t dismiss or dehumanize those who disagree with them. They invite thought, and thoughtful exchange. That can seem too mushy-moderate to partisans, but as longtime readers of this blog will have observed over the past four years, I have grown weary of shrill partisanship. It’s not because I don’t have strong views; it’s because
1) I have discovered how wrong I was about important issues in the past, and that makes me eager to hear what the other side has to say, for the sake of better informing my judgment;
2) I really do hate the tribal, Ugly Party mode of discourse, which, as Gerson says, delights in humiliating and dehumanizing opponents; where do people think this sort of thing is going to lead, anyway?; and
3) Shrill, personalized attack discourse is like pornography: initially exciting, but ultimately flat-out boring. Every now and then I’ll listen to talk radio in the car, and above all, it’s dull in its frantic kvetching. There are exceptions (e.g., Dennis Prager), but mostly if you want to learn something true and important about the world, talk radio makes you stupider, but angrier. We need less stupid and angry in this country.
Broderism — the worship of bipartisanship for its own sake — is a flawed political epistemology, because it is incapable of considering the radical nature of certain problems, which is to say, that particular challenges do not admit to chummy, bipartisan solutions. Broderists would have a difficult time dealing with the thought, for example, that the relationship between government and finance needs radical reform. In its degenerate form, Broderism rejects passion as vulgar and destructive — even if the particulars of an issue justify it to some degree. Nevertheless, the attractive thing about Broderism is that it values civility and intellection (what, you think Olbermannism or Beckism is superior?), qualities that I believe we are going to need a lot more of in the days to come.
The ideas that rage is a sign of authenticity, and the Cause relieves us of our obligation to respect the basic humanity of our opponents, are poisonous ones. People can be wrong without being evil; that’s a truth we’re losing sight of in our political culture, and it’s going to cost us plenty.