In our polarized society, the simple act of listening to people with whom you disagree — let alone working with them — can be grounds for rebuke.
The House Republicans who toppled Speaker Kevin McCarthy this week did so because he forged bipartisan compromises supported by most members of both parties. To the Republican rebels, negotiating with the opposition was a fireable offense.
A similar purism is evident in the spread of book bans targeting material on race and sexuality. In Florida, officials edited a textbook to remove a passage on George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests. In Georgia, after a children’s book author giving a talk to fifth graders mentioned that a historical figure was gay, school officials canceled the author’s remaining speaking schedule.
In yesterday’s newsletter, I focused on the specific dangers that extremist Republicans have created for American democracy. Today’s subject — intolerance of differing views — is both a right-wing and left-wing phenomenon. Like the hard-right House Republicans, modern progressivism has created a growing list of issues on which disagreement is unacceptable.
Some universities refuse to hire faculty members who won’t write statements supporting diversity programs. Activists vilify journalists who cover the difficult debate over whether children should undergo lasting gender-transition treatments. In the public health sector, more than 500 experts signed a petition portraying another expert as an unethical, fatphobic eugenics sympathizer — because she had questioned the wisdom of extended Covid lockdowns.
These attempts to enforce ideological purity tend to overlook an important bit of American history: Refusing to listen to the other side of a debate doesn’t have a very good record of success.
Change is messy
Over time, national heroes like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt acquire an image that’s a lot tidier than their real-life behavior was. They are sacralized. They’re treated as leaders who changed the country by transcending politics.
In truth, a defining feature of the country’s most effective leaders has been their embrace of messy politics, including a willingness to listen to, and work with, people whose views they do not share. Transformational leaders tend to be both radical and practical.
It was true of the founders and the suffragists, of Roosevelt and King. In a new book about Lincoln, Steve Inskeep, the NPR host, argues that this approach was a defining feature of Lincoln’s victory over slavery and his rescue of the nation. The book’s first sentence is, “Abraham Lincoln was a politician.”
He refused to isolate an abolitionist in Congress whom others considered extreme. He also worked with a leader of the anti-immigration Know Nothing party. The title of Inskeep’s book is “Differ We Must,” a reference to a line in a respectful letter that Lincoln wrote to a friend who refused to oppose slavery.
“If you’re going to defeat someone you think is doing something terrible, and also keep a democracy, you have to build a majority,” Inskeep said in an interview with Anand Giridharadas’s Substack newsletter. “And that might mean that you have to deal with people that you disagree with on some things, or many things, or even most things, but you find enough common cause that you can work with them on something.”
The counterargument is plain enough: that the other side in a political debate is so wrong that it doesn’t merit engagement. The other side is un-American, according to this view, or, to use a phrase now common on the political left, denies the humanity of others; it simply must be defeated.
The unanswered question, though, tends to be how it will be defeated.
In a democracy, victory requires winning enough votes to take power, which in turn requires persuasion. That doesn’t mean winning over most of your opponents. It does often mean winning over some of them. And it’s difficult to persuade others if you stop listening to them. “Had he failed to engage with people who differed, he would have not become the Lincoln we know,” Inskeep writes.
An abiding lesson of political change is that it’s usually accomplished by people who aren’t too pure to treat their opponents with respect. The new biography of King, by Jonathan Eig, contains evidence of the same point.
The recent history of the House of Representatives makes the point, too. Congressional Democrats have done the difficult, often unsatisfying work of compromising with each other and the Senate over the past 15 years — and along the way, they passed laws to expand health insurance, fund clean energy, build roads and semiconductor factories, and more. House Republicans have a less impressive list of accomplishments. When they have been in power, they have spent more time deposing their own leaders for being impure.
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