In the aftermath of President-Elect Biden fulfilling his oft cited campaign promise to beat Trump “like a drum” in the 2020 election, there has been an outpouring of rhetoric from the political middle for unity — a term which has grown increasingly difficult to be uttered unsarcastically in recent years of American political life. Biden himself has thus far stayed true to his desire to “lower the temperature” amidst appointments of qualified, long time civil servants to cabinet positions (doesn’t that just give you goosebumps?) and his recent Thanksgiving address in which he called for Americans “to put away the harsh rhetoric” and “give each other a chance.”
These calls to action are responsible, prudent action in this brutally polarized time. To call it responsible and prudent sounds like rather bland praise, but in juxtaposition to our current president’s brand of reckless authoritarianism, it’s actually the most deeply adoring praise I can write. Yet as the glow gradually fades from the realization we have finally restored a person who actually takes the custodianship of our democracy seriously, we are left with a profoundly difficult question posed to each of us as individuals: How do we “give each other a chance”?
Centrists in both parties have made their strategy clear through a steady deluge of op-eds calling for Biden to act during these crisis stricken times with restraint and bipartisanship — a strategy which may sound familiar to anyone who has ever attempted to put out a raging fire with an empty fire extinguisher. Progressives receive this refrain with a groan, describing the notion that a potential McConnell led Senate will be even mildly cooperative as laughable and casting an eye back to what they deem as the failures of the Obama administration in its various legislative compromises: failures which eventually led to the efficacy of Trump’s nativist, populist message in 2016.
Yet beyond big picture political strategy from the Biden administration, the core of recent discussion centered on this admirable yet amorphous notion of unity has focused on individual behavior. There are new groups designed to “teach skills for civil discourse and encourage participants to find common ground.” There are the standard lamentations against our social media echo chambers. There is a widespread push to simply speak to the other side, to give them a chance that way we can all better understand each other. The argument goes — if we can all just stop yelling at each other for a moment, maybe things wouldn’t be quite so bad.
It’s a perspective you’re probably used to hearing. It’s a classic talking point, particularly from white, male, upper middle class opiners like myself. It’s a call for everybody to just settle down. It’s a call for civility — you know, that thing you always have and your opponents never do. It’s the coldest hot take in town. It’s the popular, easy answer. It’s also the wrong one.
Trying to speak politely with the other side when they are issuing blatantly authoritarian calls to action, leading more of their own citizens to die from a dangerous pandemic through a total disregard of basic scientific fact which threatens to contribute to a potential daily COVID-19 death toll of between 2,000 and 4,000 people, and embracing conspiracy theories deemed a domestic terror threat is plugging your nose to avoid smelling the ashes from Rome burning. Telling minority voters that the solution to our polarization is simply speaking cordially to voters who support a candidate who openly called for white supremacists to “stand back and stand by” on national television is ridiculous. To treat the distinction between Trump supporters and Biden supporters, between the modern right and left in America as merely a political distinction, a sharp difference of opinion is whitewashing the profound danger of our current politics.
There are no two sides to Trumpism. There are two sides to a battle between liberal and conservative policies in America — that is a real, genuine place upon which reasonable people may radically and passionately disagree. But to support Trump’s conception of politics, his radical authoritarian impulses and embraces of a form of demagoguery wholly disconnected from reality is to openly defecate upon every ideal this deeply flawed country with such immense potential was founded upon. To support his brand of politics is to openly voice your desire to endanger minority groups through Trump’s open acceptance of white supremacy. No amount of velvet gloved civil discourse is going to bridge that gap. We’re kidding ourselves.
And so what are we left with? In a country where nearly 74 million voted for that brand of politics, how are we supposed to hear Biden’s call to “give each other a chance”? Should we disregard it as pretty political rhetoric but nothing more? Or should we dial back the heat in our debates?
The answer is neither. Giving each other a chance doesn’t mean gritting your teeth and biting your tongue. Giving each other a chance doesn’t mean allowing the other side to perpetually define you as uncivil, as too angry, as acting in bad faith. Giving each other a chance means that our debates should be more heated, more detailed and more substantial than ever. Giving each other a chance means attacking each other relentlessly but based off of fact, genuinely held belief and the substance of the issue. It means debate that is fierce about the issues yet not about the person. It means good faith debate — the most misused term in American politics.
Those who’ve read my columns before are familiar with my disdain for the usage of that term. It’s the merry go ‘round of political debate. It goes something like this: John criticizes Jeff. Jeff accuses John of acting in bad faith. He says John is attacking him just for sake of attacking him. John accuses Jeff of deflecting from the debate and thereby, acting in bad faith himself. Rinse, repeat until all sides grow tired.
Good faith doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s the political equivalent of flopping in the NBA. If you can’t make a bucket, you know you have that in your back pocket.
But despite that term’s misuse in recent years, we really do need good faith debate right now. Desperately. Former Sun columnist Michael Johns ’20 and I had an exchange on this very topic last spring precisely because, even though we disagree on how to solve it, we do agree on the problem at least. Our debates have become total wars of personal attrition.
The way we solve this is not by holding back our attacks. The way we solve this is not by depersonalizing debates and pretending that politics is some intellectualized conversation starter. It’s not. Politics should not be dispassionate. Once you’ve separated your ideals wholly from your emotions, you’ve created a politics with plenty of mind but zero soul. You’ve computerized politics.
The way we solve this is by having legitimate good faith debates — debates where we keep the brutality in our disagreement on the issues and out of our dm’s. Giving each other a chance means entering into debate and giving our own side a chance — not coating our opinion in velvet and only mildly defending it. Giving each other a chance means attacking the other side with every ounce of passion you feel — but attacking the side rather than the person.
It is, to some extent, inherently a contradiction. There are times when you can’t avoid attacking the other person. There are times when debate is impossible because someone’s opinion so basically undermines your humanity that it is not worth your time. There are times when even if you engage in good faith, the other side just won’t. And sometimes your perception of whether they are engaging in bad faith or not might even be wrong too.
That’s why good faith cannot mean blind faith. The same way that while the Biden administration should give bipartisanship an honest shot on legislation whenever possible, they should not hold their breath, we should give honest debate a shot whenever possible, but we cannot pretend there is honesty if we start from a place where there is none.
That’s how we can genuinely give each other a chance.
I’m inclined to listen to Biden because I’ve always admired him. He was my political hero as a kid. It wasn’t for his political brand. It certainly wasn’t his ideology. It was because of how he lived and breathed resilience. I don’t even need to recite his history of unimaginable loss — everybody already knows it. His very existence, his perseverance, his perpetual sense of hope reflected in his warm hearted rope line interactions with those undergoing mourning and that blinding Cheshire cat grin always seemed to reveal something inalienable about the American character: Our capacity to move forward, to continue in our darkest moments.
It’s a romanticized view of politics. A warped and completely unrealistic one. But as someone whose families on both sides likewise braved unimaginable loss in their own ways on their journeys to finding hope in this country, I choose to believe in it. I’m not ready to shrug off the future of America. I’m not ready to move away. I believe in unity in all its contradictions. I believe in getting there through a politics which embraces good faith debate without a blind faith in our opponents’ better angels. I believe that as individuals in the Cornell community, we can truly make a difference in moving to a more unified national politics.
Andrew V. Lorenzen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this semester.