What Liberals and Conservatives Can Learn From Each Other
The ability to hold deeply onto ‘I’m a liberal’ or ‘I’m a conservative’ is often a function of privilege.
What Liberals and Conservatives Can Learn From Each Other
In a recent book review, Wall Street Journal critic Bart Swain asks a penetrating question: “Isn’t the great problem of our politics precisely that so much of it can’t be conducted face to face?” Innumerable factors, ranging from the bubble culture of social media to the geographic distributions of population — north versus south, coasts versus middle America, urban versus rural — account for the ways Americans experience political divisions today, with the unfortunate consequence of not understanding one another very well. Two liberals, Rhiana Gunn-Wright and Michael Green, and two conservatives, David Azerrad and Chris Buskirk, sit down with 1A’s Joshua Johnson for a face to face conversation about the values and political issues that both divide and unite us.
What's the point?
Joshua Johnson, founding host of WAMU and NPR’s “1A,” begins by posing the question of what we hope to achieve through these types of conversations. “As a deliberative democracy,” he asks, “do liberals and conservatives have to get along?” Michael Green, CEO of the Social Progress Imperative, a nonprofit that works to assess the social and environmental performance of different countries, says we can all learn from the richness of different philosophical and political traditions, and that for civic dialogue to be productive, we must begin from a place of at least some shared understanding. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, policy director for New Consensus, a policy nonprofit best known for promoting the Green New Deal, points out that she finds deeper and potentially hurtful implications that lurk behind the mandate to learn from those we disagree with.
Big IdeaSometimes it feels like I am arguing for or against my own humanity. The urge to learn from one another means that I am supposed to wash away all the structural differences and worldview and what that means for myself and people like me. It’s deeply uncomfortable and really treacherous terrain.Rhiana Gunn-Wright
Having conversations with those we disagree with politically allows us “to find out where there are similar goals, and where there might be unexpected ways to collaborate,” says Chris Buskirk, editor and publisher of the conservative journal American Greatness. On the other hand, these types of discussions can also provide a strategic advantage. For example, listening deeply to liberals can help conservatives “learn from the left about some of our blind spots," says David Azerrad, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation, a conserative think tank. “I want to learn from them with the view of defeating them politically.”
Identity (and) politics
Gun violence, abortion, climate change, same-sex marriage — these are the words that usually come up, says Joshua Johnson, when we define the left and the right. But what about the underlying values and ideology that lead us to associate certain issues with conservatism or liberalism? Issue areas are where our values are lived out, says Rhiana Gunn-Wright, but “we often don’t ask the rest of the country to think beyond issue areas and actually talk about the principles that led them to their political positions.” She and David Azerrad exchange their thoughts on identity politics and how the different prisms through which liberals and conservatives view the world can help explain their stances on various issues:
Finding the overlap, fighting polarization
Whether you’re in conservative or progressive political circles, “it’s still hard to talk about issues among people who wear the same emblem on their shield as you,” says Joshua Johnson. So how do we go about building a starting ground for productive discourse? First, we have to realize that “there’s a lot we agree about on outcomes,” says Michael Green. “A lot of the heated debates in many areas are about the means, not the end.”
Big IdeaWe need to go back to the basic issues that make people’s lives better or worse and figure out how to address those issues, regardless of what the ideological cataclysm that we were taught might tell us.Christopher Buskirk
We also need to agree on certain rules when playing the political game. “If we don’t have a politics based on facts and evidence and reasonable debate, then we’re heading in a very, very bad direction,” Green emphasizes. What’s more, liberals and conservatives both need to do a better job of serving all of their base. “If you’re talking about both parties, they’re both very good at serving the 1% of their base — the richest part of their base,” points out Rhiana Gunn-Wright. But “they pay a lot of rhetoric, come election time, to what the rest of the 99% want,” without actually delivering on those campaign promises.
What does it mean to be an American?
“To me it’s this attachment to the country, the place, the history, and the people — as they exist, not as I want them to be in theory,” says David Azerrad. He, Chris Buskirk, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright weigh in on what being an American means to them:
It’s the shared identity of being an American, and caring about what happens to the country, that is perhaps the strongest starting place for discourse that cuts across party lines and polarizing issues. After all, says Michael Green, “you don’t make decisions about important things through Twitter, through sound bytes.”
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