Can we bridge the divide of bitter partisanship?

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Political philosophers Robert George and Cornel West recently spoke at a lecture organized by the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Statesmanship, Law & Liberty. (Photo by Elizabeth Lamark/RIT)

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.

7 thoughts on “Can we bridge the divide of bitter partisanship?

  1. I was raised intellectually as a scientist, a biologist to be precise, and I’m working with a group of people in Boulder Colorado who’re younger and, as such, have provided a vantage point on how we, as “wetware” now communicate in an age of high-tech devices that elide or outright defeat all the evolutionary cues we evolved with that, when available, help lubricate social interactions.

    The reason I bring the above up is I’m more and more convinced that part of the reason for “tribalism” as the word is used now is that the mechanisms we used to have to keep us more-or-less functioning in groups rather than slaughtering each other are gone gone gone. Not to say that slaughter is a recent human thing, but if you live in a small village and see the same people day in and day out for weeks, months or years (depending upon life expectancy) … your wetware responds to their smells, sights, voices and grunts of those around you, and more-or-less prevents you from slaughtering them.

    Take as an example the above exchanges in this single thread; while at least not written IN ALL CAPS, I honestly think the tones would be considerably more restrained were the writers to speak face-to-face and not by their fingers striking little chicklet keys.


    Since one of the continuing themes on this website is the question of the inner-city schools, it’ll be particularly interesting to see how the discussion plays out in the event the Beacon’s sponsoring in a few weeks, where people will be forced to argue/discuss face-to-face. I have the strong feeling that the environment will be a more productive one; again, I was trained as a molecular biologist and I’m hardly rosy-eyed about the inherent kindness of humans, but I think part of the answer to Alex’s discussion is to force in-person conversations, not ones from the anonymity of the electronic page.

  2. One of the costs, I think, of living in a civilized society is that at times one must accept, to a certain extent, what one considers deeply immoral actions because they are endorsed by the larger society. Being a John Brown may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s not likely to actually bring about the end of slavery, and the anarchic result of taking the law into one’s own hands is destructive of the ability to live in community and to actually deal with the problem at hand.

    “Accept” as I’m using it above doesn’t mean to passively stand by, averting one’s eyes and washing one’s hands. There is a need for protest, for speaking out, for organizing, to petition the government for the redress of grievances. But violent resistance is extremely problematic. Violating the rights of others “for a higher cause” is not a route to justice or peace. Believing that abortion is murder is not sufficient justification for killing an abortion doctor. The actual effect was to give ammunition to pro-abortion forces to restrict the activities of anti-abortion protesters.

    It’s easy for people who are very invested in a particular topic to feel that their issue is so important that it should be advanced by any means necessary, whether it be abortion, gay rights, gun rights, immigration, racial equality, or whatever else. The point George and West are making is that even–especially–with these highly emotional issues, demonizing and delegitimizing one’s opponents hinders coming to a conclusion that respects the rights of all concerned and has a chance of being acceptable to most or all. To write off half the population as immoral or deplorables who should be run over in the name of one’s own sense of justice tears apart the fabric of society and often ends up doing a greater injustice than the original.

  3. I attended the George-West dialogue and was deeply impressed and moved by the sincerity and authenticity with which they presented their shout out for the civic virtues of tolerance humility and respectful disagreement as the foundations of a democratic republic. These are virtues demanding attention and cultivation.

    Nonetheless, I left the presentation feeling uneasy given our current political environment, I could not help feel that the humanistic frame of mind and rational exchange was entirely functional in the faculty lounge. But could not help but wonder according a tolerant public hearing to the soundness of an argument such as the economic utility of slavery based on race or the elimination of Jews as antithetical to the fundamentals of Western Christian civilization is in the best interest of a democratic culture and society . But more compelling , no matter how coherent and well argued positions such as these might be, do they require polite attention and tolerance as might be the case in the faculty lounge when enacted at the salve auction or as the trains pull out of the station for Dachau?

  4. “What do we say about a party whose sole goal is to disrupt all governing when the opposition party wins an election? ” Yes, what do we say about the way the Democrats have acted for the last two years? The “Russia collusion” claim has now been definitively shown to be a lie (indeed, if anyone was colluding with the Russians, it was the Democrats who funded the pack of lies and possibly disinformation known as the Steele dossier); I haven’t heard any apologies, or even expressions of relief from Democrats that their fears were proven to be untrue. Shouldn’t that have been good news for all of us? Instead we got further fevered speculation of a Barr cover-up, which was again proven to be untrue. Now the Democrats continue to demand that Barr violate the law by releasing grand jury information from the Mueller report.

    It’s easy for partisans to point at the faults of the other side and ignore their own. “Sanity monger” trashes the Republican Party for the Gingrich revolution and its impact on political comity. He ignores the unprecedented savaging of Robert Bork when he was nominated for the Supreme Court several years before, with no less than Ted Kennedy claiming that Bork would usher in a new era of Jim Crow, not to mention back-alley abortions, censorship, and unfettered rogue police. Never before were paid political ads used to oppose a Supreme Court nomination. Even his video rental list was leaked to the press.

    Sanity Monger ignores the Democrats’ use of the IRS to block conservative political groups from organizing under the Obama administration; Obama’s executive order end runs around a Congress that chose not to do his bidding (making him the most imperial president at least since Nixon, if not beyond Nixon); the Democrat-media nexus that results in fawning coverage of “progressive” proposals and determined trashing of “right-wing” proposals (I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen the term “left-wing” in mainstream media). He ignores the Left’s assault on free speech, particularly on college campuses but increasingly in other venues; its increasing attempts to delegitimize those who disagree (including on climate change, where anyone who does less than swear total fealty to the “planet is doomed” ideology is cast as a “denier,” with the not-so-subtle link to Holocaust deniers).

    Interestingly, the U.S., without federal governmental directives to force anti-carbon action, is doing better at reducing carbon emissions than many of the Kyoto signatories. Turns out that letting capitalism seek efficient solutions often works better than the wise and self-important bureaucrats from Central Planning.

    I certainly won’t claim that Republicans are without sin. Both sides have assisted in destroying the Senate, turning what used to be useful rules to encourage deliberation into pure obstructionism (whether it be Merrick Garland or the dozens of Trump appointees who’ve been systematically blocked or delayed in a truly unprecedented way). Gerrymandering along with changing housing patterns make many politicians more afraid of a primary challenge than a general election, and the way to survive or avoid a primary challenge in either party is to veer to the extreme and avoid working across the aisle. Unless people are willing to recognize and call out bad behavior on their own side, the polarization is going to continue.

  5. Guy, am I angry about a cabal trying to negotiate with physics, and taking us all into civilizational collapse? You betcha. A Democrat? Nope.

  6. Thoughtful, intelligent article about how there is a middle ground to be had despite philosophical differences. First comment – any angry spiteful Democrat who wants to write a run on paragraph about how one side sucks. Mature.

  7. I am old enough to have watched the unraveling of the Republican Party over the past three decades. One signpost was the emergence of Gingrich-style, take-no-prisoners politics in the mid-1990s. What do we say about a party whose sole goal is to disrupt all governing when the opposition party wins an election? Should a president elected by a minority (Trump or Bush Jr.) govern as though they have some sort of mandate from their supporters, or perhaps try to govern from the middle in the name of holding the country together? What do we say about a party that appoints a completely inappropriate special council (Ken Starr — completely, even irrationally biased)? And of course there’s the Merrick Garland debacle — the Democrat’s perhaps ungracious response during the Gorsuch nomination is rather mild in my view.
    But most of all, what do we say about a party that has done all it could to stymie a meaningful response to climate change, an issue so critical that there is really no comparison to anything in humanity’s past? We know that “more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades.” (Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth (p. 4). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition), that is, during the precise time period that the Republican Party has deceived, obfuscated, and denied the emergence of this debacle. Granted, there have been other voices helping us along the way to delusion, but the Republican Party was always in a position to act, to make those other voices inconsequential. If we are to use the count of dead bodies as a measure of moral depravity (and it’s not completely inappropriate to do so), then this single strategy on the part of the Republicans is far, far worse than even the perpetrators of the Atlantic slave trade, or the German Nazi power of the mid 20th century. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, then you are (still) not listening to climate scientists (and keep in mind that this is a group that has shown itself consistently to underestimate the speed and enormity of the changes coming).
    I have no desire to be at war with conservatives, and I know that conservative is not equivalent to Republican, but it is long past time we began to take stock of what they have wrought. If nothing else, it should be eminently clear that they are completely unfit to govern, and their ideas should be treated with far more than skepticism. I see no utility in trying to work with this cabal unless and until they confront what they have done and what they have become.

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