I didn’t intend to make it very long without a prominently placed West Wing reference, and you were all warned. I love this quote, almost as much as I love Josh Lyman. In all things remotely political, pluralism should be our starting point, the idea that illuminates what we hear and informs what we say in response to those who disagree with us. It should be the context within which those conversations take place. We should understand what pluralism really means, and then we should take it more seriously.
Before I dive into ideas and issues that are more characteristically partisan, I wanted to make abundantly clear my feelings regarding American pluralism and the oft-misunderstood cog vital to its operation, political tolerance. I think both concepts are fundamentally beautiful, groundbreaking, essential to democracy. But here’s what they aren’t:
Pluralism is not a political framework that treats all ideas as equally right, only equally worthy of consideration. Similarly, a tolerant person does not believe all perspectives to be true – but he believes all proprietors of those perspectives to be worthy of his respect. If I disagree with you, it is my responsibility as a citizen of a pluralistic Republic to hear your case, appreciate your point of view, and demonstrate my respect for you regardless of the side on which I land. Pluralism in practice isn’t about acceptance, but tolerance. It isn’t about one idea, but a free market crowded with competing, sometimes complementary, ideas. It’s about deliberation – profound, zealous, persistent deliberation.
Unfortunately, we’re doing it wrong. Demonizing people in lieu of criticizing their positions is intolerant. Framing important issues like income inequality and the appropriate size of government as uncomplicated dichotomies denies market access to a slew of alternative approaches rejected for their complexity. Talking points undermine effective deliberation. Oversimplification of the problems we’re trying to solve coupled with a lack of appreciation for our colleagues’ experiences suggests that decision-makers will continue to talk past one another. It’s ineffective, and it’s not pluralism.
What’s promising, however, is that a lot of young people in Washington seem to get it. One of my favorite real-life examples that prompted this particular rumination: My father is an entrepreneur and an employer. He owns a midsize company, the success of which was predicated on a lot of failures. I watched him work hard, hit walls, work harder. And over time, I grew to really detest the federal government. Government is often present where businesses are successful suppliers of taxable capital, and absent where entrepreneurs fail. It seemed unfair, to me, and that’s where my politics started. Those are the experiences that begot my perspectives. That isn’t true of most kids, which is why there are so few 10-year-old Republicans.
A dear friend of mine is working very hard toward a PhD in neuroscience, to join a community of researchers and scientists who depend a great deal on government investment for adequate resources and the capacity to disseminate and apply important research outcomes. The things they discover often have, or could have, a considerable impact on the quality of human life. Coincidentally, funding for scientific research is not what is driving federal spending, preventing the government from addressing the budget deficit. The benefits likely outweigh the costs, and the government could do, and has done, some good here.
My friend’s experiences and her perception of the role and competence of the federal government are different than mine are. But pluralism means our ideas about government can compete with one another. In our case, I think, pluralism means our ideas about government are not irreconcilable. They certainly would be, however, if we approached any conversations about them from positions stuck in concrete, communicated through generalization, and characterized by apathy. Politics doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. I think balance and effective public policy are achievable, and therefore worth pursuing relentlessly. (David Brooks does, too, and you should also read my favorite of his New York Times op-eds, relevant to the case I’m trying to make here.)
My bottom line is this: For those of you who do and will disagree with me, as I continue to write on this blog, I’m going to make arguments with the intent to change your mind. I ask that you try to change mine, too.
Perhaps one day the federal government will find a way to simultaneously champion employers and scientists. In the meantime, we should remember pluralism.