Most Americans already know that the 2020 Elections are likely to feature all of the charm and decorum that we typically associate with The Jerry Springer Show. The insults will fly, the audience will roar, and raw anger will take a back seat to rational thought. I do not believe that either the Republican or Democratic candidate for President will throw a folding metal chair across the stage, but I would not discount the possibility altogether.
Although personalities will dominate the races, I suspect we are also going to see some resolution to a core question now dominating a great deal of political discussion today: How susceptible are voters to the siren song of “free stuff” at this juncture in American history? Politicians have, of course, been making lavish promises since the dawn of time. However, perhaps never before in U.S. history have political promises veered quite so close to territory we normally associate with the outright buying of votes.
Mandated salary increases for K-12 teachers, free college, forgiven student loans, free healthcare, a Green New Deal, reparations paid to African-Americans, a universal basic monthly income: The list goes on and on and on. The total expense for all of this lovely largesse will run well into the tens of trillions of dollars. Some basic arithmetic indicates that the only way this is possible is through a combination of breathtaking federal borrowing and onerous tax increases that cannot possibly be limited to the 1% of the super-wealthy. Given how deeply in debt all levels of government are at the present time and how beleaguered taxpayers already feel, the unpleasant reality is that we are heading for a national fiscal nightmare should we pursue these policies.
However, one should never underestimate the power of free stuff when so many voters now firmly believe that government exists to to provide whatever their hearts desire—no strings attached. Never before in American history have we heard so much shouting about rights with almost no counterbalancing discussion of responsibilities. The sad truth is that we live in the age of “Gimme, gimme, gimme!” voters and their political enablers who have rarely met a new right they do not embrace.
The flip side of all this disturbing devotion to selfishness is, unsurprisingly, a ferocious pushback that is variously characterized as hateful, racist, heartless, misogynistic, and ignorant, which obviously makes productive dialogue regarding our sometimes substantial disagreements nearly impossible. By the same token, I find our incessant and often insulting ideological labeling of one another—Conservative/Liberal, Republican/Democrat, Educated/Low Information, Rural/Urban—to be unproductive. Although these labels certainly identify group tendencies, they fail to capture the complexity and contradictions of our individual viewpoints.
I find it is easier to understand others and have helpful discussions regarding our differences of opinion if we examine our own beliefs and those of our fellow Americans with the aid of a spectrum that runs from “Rights” at one end to “Responsibilities” on the other. Although we certainly suffer from the Twitter tyranny of the most ideologically extreme among us who are incapable of respecting a differing viewpoint, the opinions of most Americans are driven by a mixture of beliefs concerning our rights and responsibilities. Therefore, the ideas and values of the majority of Americans regarding the various hot button issues of our day land squarely in the moderate middle ground where thoughtful and helpful debate can still occur. If we take the time to listen instead of shriek, we typically find the disagreements between most Americans are less difficult to resolve than we are led to believe by polarizing politicians out to divide us in order to generate campaign donations and gain votes. Understanding that most issues involve a mix of rights and responsibilities, we need only work to determine just where the balance between the two should be.
One might, for example, believe that everyone who crosses the United States border has a right to remain America, and taxpayers have a responsibility to support them in every way. Others might believe that the government has a responsibility to secure the borders, and those who enter without permission have no right to remain. However, many more may believe that we must support the right to apply for asylum or residency based on established guidelines, and those granted entrance to America have a responsibility to learn English and eventually become self-supporting. Much of how we view the issue of immigration is based upon where on the rights-responsibilities continuum we fall, and the anger directed at those with differing opinions, while perhaps understandable, impedes both understanding and resolution.
We can talk, but we need a framework for our dialogue, and I believe this method can help to dial down the inflammatory rhetoric that is dividing our nation by turning what is now often raw emotion on a wide range of topics into real and useful discussions.
The fraught issues of abortion and abortion rights is likewise a little less difficult if we use this approach. First off, we have to address the balance between the rights and responsibilities of the pregnant women: Does she have the right to absolute autonomy over her body, or does she have some responsibility to the life developing within her? Does society or government have any responsibility for protecting that potential birth, or does the pregnant women have the right to decide whether to continue the pregnancy or terminate it? Is there a point in fetal development when we can agree that potential child has the right to be born, or does the innate responsibility of bearing that child give the mother veto power over a live birth up to the point of conception?
Often our emotions regarding an issue overwhelm our reason, and I believe this problem has become much, much worse in recent years because the fashionable societal message of “tolerance” has short circuited necessary discussions and allowed many to develop the intellectually lazy habit of branding political and cultural opponents as terrible people rather than doing the hard work of actually engaging in substantive discussions of issues upon their merits. As self-comforting as it might be for many to believe that their own beliefs are a clear sign of moral and intellectual superiority, this attitude has proven enormously destructive to the messy and sometimes frustrating work of developing consensus solutions regarding a wide range of matters now before us.
If we can stop insulting one another regarding matters relating to immigration, abortion, and a host of other difficult issues now bedeviling our nation and its people, I suspect we will find that most individual viewpoints are surprisingly nuanced and can be swayed without shouting simply by examining the issues at hand using the rights-responsibilities framework. We will never agree 100% on any issue, and some of the messy compromises that real life involves will make everyone involved a bit uneasy, but we can—and must—relearn the art of reasoned debate and respectful disagreement if we are to avoid open warfare with our neighbors. The alternative to this is simply too awful to contemplate, and I hope at least a few will adopt the method that I am suggesting.