I’ve thought a lot about an old professor of mine in recent months. He taught me much about politics, history and philosophy, and more than anyone else is responsible for how I look at government. He frequently started his classes by blurting out a statement that was intended to be provocative. For example, he might ask, “What were the good things that Adolph Hitler accomplished?”
Obviously, the dark and evil side of Hitler far outweighs anything good he might have done, but that really wasn’t the point. What the professor was trying to get us to consider is that people are complex, the world is complex and reducing anything to a simple line of praise or condemnation is absurdly one-dimensional. To understand the full breadth of our existence, we need layers. We need depth, and we need context.
Today, with an almost consuming passion we are reducing our political discourse to mind-numbing simplicity or even single word labels, as if that was all that was necessary. These litmus test lines are minimizing political speech to childish patterns that erase everything in between. The world is not black and white, yes or no. It is a waterfall of everything under-the-sun coming at us at once. Each of us can only grasp a small cup of it at a time, and assuming there is nothing more than what is in our own cup is tragically naïve. It takes real study, multiple perspectives and debate to get anywhere near the truth.
Open and free debate is as fundamental to democracy as voting. The ancient Greeks discussed it at length, and every political philosopher who has pondered democracy since, has understood that limiting discussion to only accepted patterns of thought ultimately diminishes understanding. And yet today, with ever increasing frequency, we are cutting-off any debate that goes beyond rote repetition of “approved text.” On both the right and the left, no exploration of the gray zone in the middle is allowed. You are either wholeheartedly with us or against us.
What has this new reality wrought? In 1971, in the 92nd Congress, a graph of the political philosophy of each of the members of both the House and the Senate reveals a normal bell curve with the predominance of members somewhere in the middle third. In 2019, in the 116th Congress, a similar graph shows that the curve has inverted with only a handful of members in the centrist third. In less than 50 years, our nation’s Congress has gone from a moderate body of compromisers to two distinct phalanxes separated by a no-man’s land between.
One of the most troubling aspects of our democracy today is that we are actively widening the divide. The leaders of both parties routinely ignore, diminish and even repudiate opposition party contentions without so much as a glance at the substance of their argument. Compromise is fundamental to the function of democracy, and yet the in-between has become routinely unacceptable. In fact, it seems that those who offer a softer position within their own political party are castigated with even greater vehemence than those in direct opposition. It’s all or nothing with us, and it seems both political parties are content with getting absolutely nothing done.
I’m gratified to find in my short time as a member of the Omaha City Council that this outrageous partisan nonsense has yet to permeate our chamber. Sure, everyone has a different point of view, but most of our decisions are decided by a unanimous vote. I’m sure as time goes by, there will be narrow decisions that will have significant impact on our community. There always have been, but my guess is that those confrontations will have an outcome that is a little unpredictable. Sometimes they’ll go right and sometimes they won’t, and that is exactly how democracy is supposed to function. We do it together as one.