WASHINGTON – At year’s end, I want to offer a word to my conservative and libertarian readers whose patience I try regularly.
Perhaps you read me to have someone to yell at, or in search of evidence for how dumb liberals can be. No matter. I’m glad you’re there.
I am not someone who believes that if only we understood each other better, we would find our way to agreement. Indeed, sometimes people get to understand each other better and the results are disastrous. They learn that the distance between them is even greater than they assumed.
But more fundamentally, people disagree because they have honest differences over what matters most. We might all claim to believe in liberty, justice, equality, community, security and personal responsibility. But we can still quarrel because we put different weights on each, or because we define some of these concepts differently.
I might see a government program (student loans, for example) as promoting personal responsibility while you might see it as encouraging dependency on government. You might see liberty as being entirely about freedom from interference by government. I might speak of using government to protect the liberty of people in relation to large and powerful private organizations. My laws to protect people’s rights in their workplaces might, for you, be nothing but big government run wild. I think that the New Deal and the Great Society made us more free, not less. You probably don’t.
These are real differences. The problem is that we often don’t even get to them because we are so busy peddling stereotypes about each other.
This is a habit common on both sides. Some liberals can be rather intolerant when it comes to religious people. This is one reason why, as a liberal, I like to write about religion. Liberals can be too quick to jump to the conclusion that someone who disagrees with us is a bigot of one kind or another. Maybe because I’m Catholic, I know that people can be anti-abortion without being “anti-woman.” When I hear someone speak about “economic liberty” or lower taxes, I may well leap too eagerly to the conclusion that my interlocutor is protecting some special interest – or a large fortune.
And I can’t stand it when anyone, left or right, assumes that someone disagrees with them simply because said person is “less educated” or “not very smart.” Can we all admit that the side we oppose includes a lot of smart people – some of them smarter than we are – and that more education does not necessarily translate into wisdom?
It’s also true (on a slow day, read the comments under one of my columns) that conservatives hold a lot of stereotypes about us progressives. I have to confess that a few of them really bug me.
I am most bothered, I think, by “pro-family” rhetoric on the right implying that progressives who support gay rights and gay marriage are somehow “anti-family.” This is wrong on several levels, especially the personal.
Nothing is more important to me, or a greater source of joy, than my family, and I speak here for just about every liberal I know. Many of us who have come to support gay marriage see the (BEG ITAL)conservative(END ITAL) argument on its behalf as decisive: If we believe in fidelity and commitment, shouldn’t marriage, the institution that promotes both, be open to us all? Moreover, as a policy matter, I share the view of my conservative friends that the breakdown of the family is a social problem that both left and right should care about. This is an issue on which we need to seek common ground, not provoke deeper division.
Columns in support of gun control typically draw vituperative responses, and I’ll try not to incite anyone here. I would just implore my conservative friends to reconsider an absolutism about guns that is thoroughly inconsistent with a conservative disposition.
Liberals love to throw Edmund Burke quotes at conservatives. I’m no exception. Still, Burke is right that “rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”
The signs are that the rage and frenzy levels will be even higher than usual in 2016. Can’t we at least try to contain them? But by all means, let’s keep arguing. Argument is, or at least ought to be, inherently educational. And we can agree on this: Calling out views you abhor is one of the hallmarks of liberty.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.