There is something uplifting about seeing hundreds of people on a Friday night earnestly filing into a lecture about making political debate more civil. Especially when the night’s two guest lecturers not only represent diametrically opposed ideologies and styles, but also have a conspicuous record of putting principle and friendship over partisan loyalties.
The presentation this month by political philosophers Robert George and Cornel West—titled “An Antidote to Today’s Partisanship: How to Agree to Disagree”—was organized by Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Statesmanship, Law & Liberty.
As George and West took turns describing their views about modern politics, the only thing more striking than how often their underlying political philosophies diverged was how thoroughly they ultimately converged on the importance of solving today’s hate-fueled partisanship.
George, a renowned conservative intellectual and professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, began the discussion by explaining the required ingredients for a healthy and lasting republic. Drawing on the ideas of the nation’s founders and in the Federalist Papers, he noted that the “structural elements” embedded in the Constitution are certainly very important. But, George emphasized, what is ultimately more relevant in combatting the dangers faced by republics—like the tendencies toward “factions,” ill-conceived passions and the tyranny of the majority—are the constraints imposed by “civic virtue.” In other words, no matter how well we design the rules for governing ourselves, in the long run the state of our republic will reflect not those rules but the collective characteristics and propensities of its citizenry.
Today, our politics are characterized by a level of fierce tribalism and civic division that poses a very real danger to our nation’s future, George argued.
West, a prominent voice on the left and professor of public philosophy in the Divinity School and the Department of African-American Studies at Harvard University, also described the current situation as dire. “We are experiencing massive spiritual decay,” which propagates many of the habits of mind and heart that are inimical to social cohesion, West said.
He also expressed—as did George—that we cannot be passive in this moment, and just assume that the natural and inevitable course for America will ultimately lead to self-correction and progress. “Every generation needs to reconquer the anti-democratic forces of its time,” West warned.
The solution proposed by George and West reflected a joint statement the two published in 2017 titled “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.” That statement garnered much attention and numerous public signatories. The key virtues that must be cultivated, according to the duo, are intellectual humility, openness of mind, and “above all, love of truth.”
These virtues are based on the supposition that none of us are infallible and therefore could be wrong about all or part of what we believe. And even if our opponents turn out to be wrong, there is still something quite valuable to the process of learning “what considerations—evidence, reasons and arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.”
The joint statement from George and West continues: “All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshalling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.”
To the speakers at the event, the modern tendency toward trying to silence or delegitimize the voices we disagree with is particularly troublesome. Examples of this abound, including through organized efforts to disinvite speakers, the questioning of opponents’ motives, and stigmatizing dissenting opinions. And, of course, all of these types of efforts have been made simpler to organize—and more powerful—through the megaphone of social media.
The two also spoke of other important virtues. One of those is a “commitment to democracy.” This sounds easy enough, until your side loses an election.
This example was not brought up during the lecture, but consider for a moment how the nation chooses its Supreme Court justices. Two of the most potent (and ideologically opposite) justices in recent decades have been Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Scalia, despite a long and clear conservative record, was confirmed by the Senate in a 98-0 vote in 1986. Ginsburg, despite her liberal record as a judge and ACLU attorney, was confirmed by the Senate in a 96-3 vote in 1993. The Washington Post at the time called it “one of the most harmonious court confirmations in recent history.”
Contrast that with the 2017 confirmation vote for Neil Gorsuch of 54-45 (nearly all along partisan lines), despite Gorsuch being no more conservative—and no less qualified for the bench—than Scalia. And consider the gamesmanship of Senate Republicans in refusing to hold hearings in 2016 on the nomination of Merrick Garland, which Senate Democrats often cited in how they handled the Gorsuch nomination.
Can we imagine at this point any upcoming Supreme Court nominees—no matter their qualifications or ideology—being near-unanimously confirmed? Can we imagine any future nomination hearing being described as “harmonious?” Or is it more likely that each side will increasingly deploy procedural technicalities and demonization to thwart the Constitution’s clear intent that presidents are owed considerable deference in nominating justices?
A “commitment to democracy” does not mean that politicians and voters should not make substantive (and vigorous) arguments on behalf of their views and agendas. But it means that they should do so in good faith and on the merits. And when their arguments (or political candidates) do not prevail, they should equanimously honor the results to avoid undermining faith in our democratic institutions.
The final civic virtue discussed by George and West was the need to respect and care for our fellow human beings, both for their similarities and their differences with us. George pointed out that such differences should be welcomed since they are inextricably linked to our freedoms: “If we have freedom, we will not all agree—including on all the big issues.”
West expressed the point more poignantly and poetically. Noting his deep and genuine friendship with George and others with whom he fundamentally disagrees politically, West argued that “love cuts so much deeper than politics.” And in imploring the audience to see other people for their humanity rather than their politics, he quoted an exhortation from a W.H. Auden poem: “You shall love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart.”
Again, perhaps that is easier said than done. But reversing the collapse of civic virtue will become ever more difficult the longer we wait to start. And there will always be plenty of loud voices that are unwilling to go along.
So, like with most things, progress will largely depend on people who are centered—congenitally and perhaps politically—taking the lead. It will take people with the foresight and endurance to prioritize openness and civility over the momentary temptations to denounce and thwart political opponents at all costs. It will take long-term thinkers rather than short-term emoters.
Can our nation do that? Can Rochesterians?
I don’t know. And George and West did not provide that answer.
But the stakes couldn’t be higher. So, perhaps we start with one crooked heart at a time.