A Convention of Reason
By Chris William
Like so many people these days, I am struck by the acute fury behind, as well as the overt dismissiveness of, today’s politics and public conversations. And frankly, what we just plain expect from each other. Smart people who are normally kind, generous, and charitable will explosively and vehemently oppose and even personally attack others who don’t agree with their views. A Jekyll/Hyde effect. Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, laughingly labels present-day political opposites as “the secular arrogance of the Left and the fundamental silliness of the Right.”
Trust is in short supply, but the situation surely seems more complex than only trust. Our social dysfunction goes way beyond simple disagreement. Ronald Reagan described it colloquially: “Too often character assassination has replaced debate in principle here in Washington. Destroy someone’s reputation, and you don’t have to talk about what he stands for.” This widespread distrust feels like it is being fueled by a lower-level corporate insecurity that broadly permeates and rises into society like waves of midsummer heat from a hot pavement.
JFK once said, “We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” We have a choice: continue to invest in ‘righteous’ outrage in response to someone’s inverse position or comments, or, we can look deeper. We can genuinely search for what is behind not only our contemporary politics but also what keeps us so intractable in our chosen position. We need to ask genuinely honest questions, such as how and why we elevate leaders like Sanders, Trump, etc. to a spot that have become our only choice.
Collectively, the corporate ‘we’ did indeed raise them up. This is not the result of a small group or out-of-touch demographic. Thomas Jefferson identified the issue when he called this same effect “Defective Citizenship.”
While it is generally thought that this new level of acrimony is epic, it existed in the early days of this Republic. A lengthy but appropriate warning against severely divisive partisan politics came during George Washington’s farewell address in September 1796. What would he have to lose by being plainly direct in his last public-service speech?
“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.”
It isn’t good enough to say that it is acceptable simply because these issues have existed before. As we seek our way forward, finding answers is important, but maybe a better place to start is just accepting the questions. Here are a few:
Isn’t the whole idea of the American democratic experiment to evolve into something greater or better?
Will our egos let us lay down the sword of political debate?
Where and when does this escalation of hostility end?
Do we collectively hope that these deep divisions among us will heal naturally or shift toward congeniality and statesmanship?
I cannot find a meaningful moment in our history when a seismic pivot toward any change — in this case the kinder, gentler spirit — spontaneously generated on its own and without intention. Material change will take real work, uncomfortable effort and, most importantly, pure humility.
Final question: Can we again be the greatest on the globe in that way, too? It may sound sensational to say, but this Republic depends on it.
William, a financial adviser in Charlotte, hosts Carolina Business Review, a weekly show that airs on public-television stations throughout the two states.