We’re Right, They’re Wrong, That’s the End of the Story

This is a guest post by Ken Stern, the President and co-founder of Palisades Media and the former CEO of NPR. Ken is the author of With Charity For All (Doubleday, 2013) and of a forthcoming book on political polarization in this country, tentatively entitled “Republican Like Me” (HarperCollins, 2017).

The title of this blog post is not a playground taunt issued by my eight-year old son, Nate, though I wish it were only that. Rather, it is the tag line of the popular conservative talk show, the Wilkow Majority, which I listen to from time to time on “Patriot Radio” on Sirius Satellite Radio. The line, repeated by Andrew Wilkow every 15 minutes or so with an almost religious fervor, is the central organizing principle of the show, and let’s admit, so that we don’t unfairly pick on Mr. Wilkow, of much of the political discussion in this country.

I had reason to contemplate the Wilkow mantra this week as we collectively assessed the fallout from the mass shootings in Orlando. In truth, there was no collective assessment, but rather the now tiresome ritual of using a horrible tragedy as proof of the righteousness of your position. There was a time, us older people seem to believe, when national moments brought us together in solidarity, but in Orlando, everyone had their own truth – it’s because we are weak on Islamic terrorism (hello Donald Trump); no, it’s the fault of the gun lobby (hello, Chris Murphy); no, it’s because conservatives have engendered hatred for gays (hello Anderson Cooper) – and very few are willing to entertain the view that there could be multiple truths – beyond their truths – at work here.

We are a nation that has become deaf to the other side, to the possibility that “the other” has insights, belief, ideas, or values worth recognizing and considering. It’s not only reflected in the first line at the beginning of this post but also the second verse of the Wilkow catechism, “the arguments made in this show cannot be broken”. It is no doubt easy for Wilkow to see his arguments as unbreakable, when he only makes them to people who have no interest in testing their tensile strengths whatsoever.

Like the weather, everyone complains about what polarization is doing to this country, but no one does anything about it. So good for John Inazu, in his fine new book Confident Pluralism, for taking on the issue and beginning to create a legal framework to understand how we might move the country back to a place where it was acceptable to disagree and a public necessity to occasionally entertain the idea that the other side might have a perspective worth considering. The idea that we might all get along seems rather quaint in a time when we all think the other side is solely responsible for all that is wrong in the world. But Inazu is dead right in making the case that it is our dialogue that has gotten nasty, more than our ideas, and that is a cultural change, a point that he makes with vibrant stories, that is needed more than anything else.

It’s such an important point that I was puzzled to see the critique of Confident Pluralism from no less than Mark Tushnet of Harvard Law School. Tushnet has a constitutional and a social critique of Inazu. The constitutional issues are terribly important, but I leave them to others to debate and instead focus on the cultural critique. On this count, Tushnet seems to have two central complaints about Inazu’s book. The first is that Inazu is one-sided in his call for tolerance, only citing liberal intolerance. If true, it would be a fair indictment – how can you argue for tolerance when you only see intolerance on the other side. But at least to my reading it seems to be a poor reading of the book and the man, and Inazu has specifically stated that he sees growing intolerance across the political spectrum, but everyone can read and decide for themselves.

The other challenge is more interesting, and it goes something like this: we progressives (and yes I am one of them) have won the cultural wars, the enemy has been routed, so no quarter, no mercy. All very Game of Thrones of Tushnet. I suppose I might agree if Tushnet were describing a country I live in, but the picture of the culture wars, a phrase I detest but still use, is far more complicated to my mind. True, there has been a remarkable shift on gay rights and sexual mores over the last few years but that is just one battle in the culture wars, which is likely to be a war without end. Differences in views on cultural issues will go on forever, and, indeed, as the country becomes more diverse and more polyglot, people of different backgrounds and different religious heritages will continue to disagree over appropriate norms. Progressives will not win all those battles, and indeed, I predict, some core battles like over abortion may move against progressives with shifts in technology and population. If we are to move the country forward, we cannot conceive of this as a war, with winners and losers, or we will only get more anger and more resentment from all sides. We should be thinking of this as a common people with different views finding ways to live and grow together, which I vaguely recall has something to do with democracy.

And even on this particular issue of the day, liberals need to be more sophisticated in understanding their “enemy.” The religious right is not a uniform sea of intolerance, as most liberals care to think. There are significant parts of evangelical leadership who, while very conservative themselves, regret and reject the politics of confrontation and intolerance practiced by the Robertsons and Dobsons of the world and instead preach tolerance, good works, accommodation. We would be wise to understand the cross-currents the evangelical community and enable those of a more tolerant bent. We won’t do that by whacking away indiscriminately. We do that by recognizing the importance of diverse ideas and judging how they can be best accommodated in a pluralistic society.

There is a remarkable exchange in the movie Broadcast News between Jane Craig, played by Holly Hunter, and Paul Moore, played by Peter Hackes, that goes like this:

Paul: it must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.

Jane: No, it’s awful.

What Jane painfully understood was that being right was only a small piece of how you deal with others. Being right is as much a burden as it is a privilege. I personally don’t doubt at all that Tushnet is right on the issues of marriage equality and gay rights but being right requires wisdom as well, the wisdom to understand that there are competing views in a democracy and the humility to know that being right in this instance does not ensure that you will be correct in all cases. We can always be just and confident in our views while respecting the rights of those of different perspectives, a principle of civil society we can assert strongly while still acknowledging that there will be corner cases where it will be sorely tested. A society without this commitment to pluralism is a society troubled by demagoguery and we are painfully finding out in this election cycle what that looks like.