American political discourse has degenerated over the past few decades to little more than vicious juvenile banter. A small but helpful step in restoring civility is to work to understand why those we disagree with believe what they believe.
An economic blogger and scholar, Arnold Kling, suggests American politics can be parsed into three camps. Conservatives see politics as a conflict between barbarism and civilization. Progressives see politics as a conflict between oppressors and the oppressed. Classical liberals or libertarians see politics as a conflict between coercion and freedom. The terms of conflict largely reflect each camp’s worldview.
Conservatives note that Western civilization has been remarkably successful. It has generated a high living standard for its citizens and safeguarded their political and legal rights.
Conservatives see the role of government to ensure this order is maintained. This implies a strong national defense, strict punishment of wrongdoers, the fair enforcement of justice and the protection of private property. Conservatives see traditional values, such as a work ethic, a commitment to family life, a widespread belief in God (or at least Providence) as crucial to maintaining civilization.
Progressives appreciate the success of Western civilization but note that many groups have been excluded from its benefits. Women and minorities have been shut out from its political, cultural and economic life or relegated to second-class status. The poor are systematically excluded from the economic mainstream.
Of course, government must provide national defense and run prisons, but it also has an obligation to right the wrongs that prevail in the larger civilization. Progressive values emphasize inclusion, fair outcomes and equal access to all.
Classical liberals or libertarians appreciate both the success and critique of Western civilization. According to their view its success has been attributable to the freedom the civilization has allowed its citizens to enjoy. Moreover, most all of its shortcomings are the result of government policies that thwart individual freedom and responsibility.
Government is itself a major threat to freedom. Its proper role is to enforce the rules of game but not to try to engineer any particular constellation of values — traditional or progressive.
All three viewpoints appeal to high ideals. All three are held by intelligent and good people. None of the three views can be dismissed out of hand.
To make the point, consider the premiere policy success of the previous century: the United States winning World War II. Conservatives see the war as a conflict between Axis barbarism and Christian civilization; progressives see it as a conflict between Axis oppressors and oppressed peoples; classical liberals see it as a conflict between Axis coercion and Allied freedom. All three seem apt descriptions of the war, and it is not obvious which is “best.”
But few issues are as uncontroversial. When more controversial issues are at hand, the framework provides a way of understanding one’s political opponent that gets beyond “they disagree with me because they are stupid and evil.”
Consider decriminalization of marijuana. Classical liberals or libertarians see the issue as a conflict between coercion and freedom, while conservatives see it as an issue of degenerating social values: barbarism versus civilization. Progressives generally sympathize with the libertarians because they see drug criminalization as oppressing poor and minority groups.
The point here is not so much what view one holds but to understand that those with different views hold their view for reasons that are legitimate.
Your opponent may be wrong; they may be misled; they may hold values that you do not hold in highest esteem, but they are neither insincere nor deluded, neither feeble-minded nor malicious. If you saw the world their way, you would think what they thought.
I think this is a first step to a more civil political discourse. I hope you find it useful, too.
Cecil Bohanon is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a professor of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org