I suppose that, on one level or another, it has always been difficult to talk about religion and/or politics. However, I can’t imagine that it has ever been as difficult as it is right now.
In an ideal world, we should be able to identify problems, propose solutions, respond to, reconsider, and compromise those solutions, then and ultimately agree on something that everyone can live with. That form of dialog is the life-blood of democracy.
Yet, as a nation, we seem to be less and less capable of engaging in such dialog. Rather, we are doing little more than yelling at each other – across picket lines, on Facebook, in re-tweets, etc. We have lost the capacity to actually talk about our differences.
Why is that?
I think it is happening because, as citizens, we have become enamored with philosophies, and we are losing our capacity to talk about policies.
When people start talking politics these days, they generally do little more than espouse a particular philosophy. Some of them aren’t bad. Some are very good. Some are awful. But, in the end, they are no more than philosophies: general guiding principals about how our nation ought to function.
What we seldom talk about, however, are policies. These are the specific programs and laws that we propose to change or implement within government.
“Government needs to get out of people’s lives.” That is a popular philosophy. But how does it translate into policy? Do we really want government to stop building roads? Or making sure everyone has sewer service? Or policing gang activity? Or making sure skyscrapers are built so that they don’t collapse? Or ensuring that you don’t get salmonella at your favorite restaurant?
Of course, the people who espouse this philosophy are normally thinking about unnecessary and pointless government regulations that burden the economy – a valid concern. However, the philosophy, as stated, is very difficult to translate into policy.
Why are philosophies so much more alluring than policies? I think there are several, inter-related reasons:
- Our personal and work lives are complicated and stressed. We don’t want to take the time to educate ourselves on the way a particular Federal program works, and to look at the statistical evidence on how effective it has been. Its too much work. Yet, we feel the need to somehow participate in the process. Its much easier to wave a dismissive hand at something as “another failed, government program” than it is to understand what it is about and how it might be reformed.
- The “news” media panders to this. We are looking for reassurance that our simplistic philosophies are valid. The media responds to this need by giving us talk shows, columns, and even entire news networks that assure us that our philosophies are “correct.” For the most part, when you watch Bill O’Riley or Rachel Maddow, or when you listen to Rush Limbaugh, you are not educating yourself, you are just trying to reinforce your viewpoint that everything boils down to the few, simple political philosophies that you espouse.
- Political candidates, likewise, want to avoid policy discussions. Philosophies make politicians popular. Policies offend people. Rick Perry has been awakening to this reality in recent weeks. When he espouses the philosophy of “securing our borders,” conservatives love it. However, when – in the past – the time came to deal with the policy of whether we will educate immigrant Hispanics in Texas schools, the issue became more complicated. In principal, his policy was perfectly coherent: We need to secure the borders better, but if people are going to end up in our State because of the failure of the Federal government to do that, then we want to be compassionate, and allow them to be educated. But that policy is too nuanced, and therefore incomprehensible to most conservatives, who simply think it means he has rejected the anti-immigrant philosophy.
I’m convinced that we will never get anywhere by shouting philosophies at each other. This is because philosophies don’t account for the complexities of the economic and cultural systems in which we live. To make matters worse, we often assume that anyone who is not enthusiastic about our philosophies of choice must be “against” them, but that isn’t always true.
Are you “pro life”? That doesn’t make everyone else “pro abortion.” Some people are offended by abortion, but think its overly intrusive for the government to regulate it. They don’t advocate abortion.
Are you “anti big-corporations”? That doesn’t mean that your conservative friends are “pro big corporations.” They may be indifferent about it, or see it as a minor problem in relation to other issues.
Simply because conservatives are “anti-big government” doesn’t mean that all liberals want government to get bigger. Its wrong to assume that, simply because someone isn’t enthusiastic about your philosophy, that they just “want to increase the size of government.”
Yet, again and again, these are the assumptions we make. If you don’t like my philosophy, you must be vehemently against it. And that’s not normally true. Reality is much more complicated and nuanced than that.
Consider this example:
“We should be compassionate like Jesus!” shouts (or posts) one philosopher.
“The War on Poverty didn’t eliminate poverty!” shouts (or comments) another philosopher.
These philosophies are not mutually exclusive. The first speaker is not against reform that improves the way we respond to poverty. He wants to see it reduced! The second speaker is not against Jesus or compassion. She is worried about wastefulness. They think they are disagreeing, and they are probably angry with each other because of it. But if they ever bother to start talking about policies (how can we make welfare more effective and less expensive? how can we do things that get people to work so they don’t need welfare?) they may discover that they have more in common than they think.
So there you have it. Philosophies are simple. Policies are complex. Philosophies view the world in black-and-white. Policies involve hard work and compromise. Philosophies make good bumper stickers and Facebook posts. Policies don’t.
If our political dialog is going to take us anywhere, we have got to get beyond a culture in which we are all parroting sound-bytes from talk show hosts, and start talking about the nuanced, gritty world where policies are actually made and implemented.