New Year's resolution: Seek the other side in political commentary

Thirty years ago, I got into the habit of consulting a political commentator with whom I might disagree, starting with William F. Buckley Jr. While only others can say if it’s made me a better citizen, I do know that it's been a great deal of fun, not to mention enlightening.

Frank Franklin II/File
William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative pioneer and television "Firing Line" host, responds to questions during a 2004 interview in New York. He regularly hosted liberals on his show and cheerfully gave them the floor.

If you’re still looking for a New Year’s resolution at the start of what promises to be a very partisan 2012, here’s a suggestion:
Once a week – or once a day, if you can – consult a political commentator with whom you might disagree.

I got in this habit 30 years ago, and while only others can say if it’s made me a better citizen, I do know that seeking out the devil’s advocates in politics has been a great deal of fun, not to mention enlightening.

This all started in the 1980s, when, as a college student with few TV viewing options, I watched William F. Buckley Jr.'s  “Firing Line” one Sunday afternoon.

The late Buckley reigned supreme as the godfather of American conservatism, but he routinely invited liberals on his public affairs show and cheerfully gave them the floor. What Buckley seemed to say, without quite saying it, is that he was confident enough in his own views to allow others to question them.

My own political views were unformed at the time, but Buckley’s example suggested that citizens of sound conviction had nothing to fear from civil debate. His magnanimity gave me the courage to throw a wide net in exploring my own beliefs, without fear of meeting minds that might be sharply different from mine.

Amused by Buckley’s gentle sparring with left-of-center economist John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, I sought out Galbraith’s “Annals of An Abiding Liberal,” which I read alongside laissez-faire economist Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose.”

What I discovered is that neither man, despite widely divergent perspectives, seemed evil or dumb. The fact that two smart, apparently good-natured people could examine the same set of facts and reach sharply different conclusions struck me as a great mystery of political discourse, and one worth embracing.

I found a great laboratory for this phenomenon on my local editorial page, where writers like liberal Ellen Goodman and conservative George F. Will could write elegantly and thoughtfully in service of two competing visions of life. What a miracle, I thought, that a single sheet of newsprint could include such variety.

After decades of visiting both sides of the political spectrum, I’ve evolved into a flaming moderate, convinced that neither conservatives nor liberals have all the answers. My enthusiasm for the give and take of political debate led me to work on my hometown editorial page, where I regularly referee the latest pronouncements from voices as varied as Cal Thomas and Richard Reeves.

Not everyone, I know, is as happy to greet political views that might challenge their preconceived notions of how the world works. I routinely field calls from readers who question not only a columnist’s views, but the author’s right to express them.

Chalk that up to a media culture in which, increasingly, people are simply following web sites, periodicals, cable channels, or radio shows that affirm what they already believe. Which is why, I suppose, I have red-state friends who cannot believe anyone would vote for Barack Obama, and blue-state friends who’ve never had a serious discussion with a Republican. That can’t be a good thing as Americans go to the polls next year to elect a president.

Political partisanship, of course, wasn’t invented in 2011, as John Stuart Mill, the 19th century political philosopher and economist, would surely remind us if he were still around. Confronting the politically myopic citizens of his own day, Mill advanced three pretty good reasons for listening to the other side:

If you seriously consult an opposing viewpoint and find it’s still in error, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your views have been challenged and survived. If, on the other hand, you determine that someone else is right or partly right, you have the equal satisfaction of correcting your opinions and feeling smarter for it. There’s a third satisfaction, too, in the possibility that after considering opposing voices, you might be able to correct them

The only way to know the whole of a subject, Mill added, “is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.”

Mill’s argument suggests the practical benefits to politics and civic life in making a standing date with your opposite.

But such arguments, while important, can have an air of grudging civic duty, and they really shouldn’t, since my own experience on this score has been relatively painless.

If you’re a politically cloistered soul, resolve to regularly read or listen to a pundit outside your comfort level. If my case is any indication, you’ll probably not only endure it, but learn to enjoy it, too.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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