“Peace is not a result of agreement, but of toleration of disagreement.” – F.A. Hayek
A recent episode of This American Life, Will I Know Anyone at This Party?, is a compassionate piece on the struggle within the Republican Party as it moves toward more populist concerns, especially about immigration. It’s worth a listen for Canadians because the same battle is simmering here, and we need to find ways to engage with those who are fearful or feel left behind before it boils over.
The podcast points out that concerns about America’s changing demographics aren’t new, but they are reaching a boiling point among self-identified Republicans. Although these fears are made worse by bad information about immigrants that might be insulated by selective media consumption that rejects alternative viewpoints as part of a conspiracy (‘The Mainstream Media!’), it seems obvious that there is an element of an evolutionary holdover fear of the new and unknown at play. That, at least, is nothing new.
Political parties can be important intermediary institutions in democratic society. They should be forums for debating policy, not during elections when the scope of political debate has already been narrowed, but between elections. They should be a place where people who feel frightened by something changing in the world can talk to one another and determine the best way forward, tempered by different opinions of people with similar goals to help eliminate the biggest errors before moving those opinions into discussion beyond the party.
As political discourse has become more polarized and tribal, though, discussion of important, nuanced ideas seems to be happening less not just across party lines (since the left dismisses the right as blinded by privilege or stupid and intolerant and the right dismisses the left as pawns of the elites or dupes of the mainstream media), but also within parties.
Debate within parties centres instead on strategy – finding the way to convince to voters, who are treated as though their positions can’t change, to vote for one team over the other. And yes, political parties have always worried about strategy. That’s what they’re for. The problem is strategy without a conversation about a policy agenda to ground it. Discussion within parties should treat voters as people whose views and beliefs are shaped by their conversations and experiences. In this way, parties become part of the process that corrects mistaken beliefs and shapes social norms via discussion with supporters and voters that’s open enough to be corrected when it strays too far afield.
It’s true that Republican candidates were able to win elections by focus grouping their statements so that they don’t scare away voters who are worried about immigration, trade, or the many other changes ongoing in a great society. But by failing to spend the resources to engage those voters and supporting their fears, the party has found itself floundering when it comes to explaining the limits of what American governments can do, actual facts on the ground about immigration, and an economic understanding of trade now that those fears have become worse.
Likewise in Canada, Kellie Leitch might be able to win votes, and Ezra Levant might be able to scrape together subscribers, by playing to the worst fears of the populist wing of the electorate. They are helping to congeal those who share those fears into a distinct, separate voting bloc of people who aren’t questioned (lest their votes be risked) and whose fears are elevated, rather than engaged (lest they disappear, along with the motivation to stick with the candidate).
An alternative is to engage fearful people. As Ilhan Omar points out in the podcast, people are allowed to be afraid – but how we react to that fear matters. Political fortress building isolates valid concerns from correction and refinement by facts, experience, and different perspectives. This is why progressives who immediately write off those same concerns as deplorable are just as culpable for the faltering pillar of societal tolerance as the conservatives who refuse to listen to the ‘MSM’. The left fears Donald Trump and what his victory today might mean. The right fears ‘social justice warriors’ who want to rewrite society. Neither talks across the gulf between them. Both contribute to the problem.
Failure to communicate well when it comes to tough issues might be a fact of life in a large, cosmopolitan society. But we don’t vote on every failure to communicate – or at least we don’t have to. Lowering issues about which insufficiently open conversation has taken place to the level of a zero-sum vote might rend apart the fabric that allows liberal democracy to accommodate the fears and hopes of radically different people.
Perhaps, though, what we’re seeing now is the boiling over that finally allows us to remember that we’re all doing our best, and that we have that in common. There’s no easy solution here. We need to buckle down, swallow our outrage, and start a conversation that gives and takes.
Time will tell if it’s enough.