Class warfare. War on teachers. War on business. War in America?
Based on all the 'wars' partisan politicians claim their opponents are waging on innocent parts of America, it's a wonder any of us are still alive. The 'war' metaphor may win media coverage and rile voters, but it excludes the kind of debate that can actually solve problems.
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Of course, political partisans by nature believe the other side is wrong, and they believe their opponents’ policies will injure society in some way. That’s a normal, even needed part, of having differing views. The question is why they believe their opponents are wrong.Skip to next paragraph
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There are two types of reasons, one pertaining to thinking and one to motivation. People might promote harmful policies because they are mistaken in their evidence and reasoning, and people might promote such policies because they want to harm others. The distinction is between means and ends. And war is not a mistake; it is a purposeful attempt to destroy.
The “wars” cited in my list have a peculiar characteristic: They are all secret wars. The other side never says they want to harm businesses, teachers, or the elderly – so how do partisans know their opponents have these intentions? Apparently, they believe they can read their opponents’ minds. Mind reading is a non-verifiable and therefore useless basis for policy debate.
The war metaphor might be politically useful, but it has deleterious effects on real policy discussions – and governance. Convincing groups of voters that the other side is purposely trying to harm them puts an end to reasoned argument by framing the situation as one requiring self-defense against an attacker.
For fierce partisans, demonizing the other side produces cathartic feelings of angry self-righteousness and attracts large audiences in the media, but such discourse has nothing to offer people who are genuinely interested in figuring out effective policy options. By fundamentally misidentifying the cause of bad policy as evil rather than error, this metaphor wrenches discussion away from its proper emphasis on observable facts, quality of logic, and predicting the consequences of societal actions.
The “war” rhetoric not only stymies real political debate, it derails the progress government (and citizens) could make in tackling the country’s most pressing problems. Our politicians and pundits should give up this manipulative form of rhetoric. And citizens should support leaders who exchange this cheap emotional ploy for the hard work of evidence-based reasoning and persuasion.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken earlier this year found that half the American public felt political commentators (on both the left and right) have “crossed the line in attacking the other side.” At a time when partisan gridlock rules and only 12 percent of Americans approve of Congress (New York Times/CBS poll), participating in constructive, fair dialogue, rather than issuing cries of alarm and condemnation, is in politicians’ best interests.
There are a number of organizations trying to move our political debates in this fair-minded, reason-based direction. Their websites do not offer the emotional stimulation of a hyperventilating talk show host, but people who want to learn, think, and develop solutions for our society’s problems would do well to start with No Labels, Constructive Debate, and ProCon.org.
Jeremy Shapiro is a psychologist and director of YouCutTheBudget.com.