Perhaps you saw the clip of the angry old man addressing John McCain at a Republican rally in Wisconsin this week. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ykBr3SO6sg) “I’m mad!” he growled into the microphone, posturing with one hand firmly on his hip. “I’m really mad! And…it’s not about the economy—it’s the socialists taking over our country!” The crowd stood up and roared, but he said, “Sit down, I’m not done.” McCain started to answer him, but the old man continued, “Let me finish, please.” He was not going to stop until he made his point: “When you have an Obama, Pelosi and the rest of the hooligans up there, gonna run this country, we gotta have our heads examined!”
It wasn’t exactly a warm invitation to political dialogue.
The old man’s grandstanding reminded me of a woman I met at a cocktail party shortly after the vice-presidential debate. No more than 10 seconds after I sat next to her on a couch, she threw up her hands and howled: “I can’t believe McCain picked that idiot as a running mate! It’s just so damn scary. If the Republicans win, it’s over. Ov—er.” Then she glared at me. “You’re not a Republican are you?” I shook my head. “Good,” she said. I didn’t take the time to explain that while I’m currently registered Republican, I change my party affiliation each primary season to give myself the widest possible choice of candidates. But I don’t think she would have listened.
In fact, these days I find most of us don’t want to listen when it comes to politics—or much else. The idea of having a healthy discussion in which we weigh different points of view seems as idealistic as a politician telling the unvarnished truth. Instead, we come to the table with predetermined opinions or shadowy motives. We load our speech with subtle barbs, irony, or faux cynicism to pre-empt the adversary. It’s as if entertaining an opposing viewpoint is to give away what little power we have, so we spout off to show our strength and chutzpah. And, of course, the other person doesn’t give a damn; she’s either doing the same thing or has shut down completely, thinking about the tennis match or what she has to buy at the supermarket later that day.
Yet in spite of our posturing, most of us want to be heard. We’re aching for acknowledgment, for acceptance. And the fear that we’re not going to get it drives us to act out at political rallies, shouting, “I’m mad!” But until we can let down our defenses and unstop our ears, we’ll never work out our problems. This isn’t a philosophical issue; it’s why families are broken—and Washington, too. Eight years of “you’re either with us or against us” has polarized the nation. We seem to be on the precipice of…who knows what? There’s a shrillness to this election cycle not heard since the late ’60s; everyone’s shouting and no one’s listening, which is one of the hardest things to do because it means we have to get over ourselves. Of course we’re going to disagree, but it’s one thing to do it with respect and another to strong-arm our way toward victory, which is often no victory at all.
James Madison recognized the danger of not listening in times of crisis back in 1788, when the original 13 states were debating whether to ratify the Constitution. In Federalist No. 37, he wrote:
“It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it.…The truth is, that these papers…solicit the attention of those only, who add to a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country, a temper favorable to a just estimate of the means of promoting it. Persons of this character will proceed to an examination of the plan submitted by the convention, not only without a disposition to find or to magnify faults; but will see the propriety of reflecting, that a faultless plan was not to be expected. Nor will they barely make allowances for the errors which may be chargeable on the fallibility to which the convention, as a body of men, were liable; but will keep in mind, that they themselves also are but men, and ought not to assume an infallibility in rejudging the fallible opinions of others.”
The legacy of these people who had “a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country” is our Constitution—imperfect, amended, often vague, but the foundation of our freedoms. What will our legacy be? Self righteousness, bickering, and finger-pointing, or cooperation in fixing the mess in which we now find ourselves? We have critical issues to solve: health care, the war in Iraq, our response to terrorism, the credit crisis, global warming. Surely one party doesn’t hold all the answers to these issues. Whether McCain or Obama wins in November—or, dare I say, Ralph Nader or Ron Paul?—we’re still all in it together. Shouldn’t we stop yelling and start listening to each other? Maybe, just maybe, the person who we never thought we’d agree with has an insight or two.