Two weeks ago, an airport shuttle driver in a distant state deepened my election-year despair. “We have been told,” he said, “never to discuss the election with our passengers.”
This nation’s Founding Fathers were not a very harmonic group (we’ll come back to that). But if they could have foreseen — or foreheard — the driver’s remark, they might have united in dismay. Episodes of citizens submitting to a ban on conversation about pending elections would seem to provide the occasion for a synchronized movement of our ancestors, rolling over in their various well-marked patriot graves.
But what happened next might have settled the Founders back into repose. The shuttle driver and I defiantly exercised our rights as citizens and talked about the election.
We turned out to be creatures of one mind and one spirit, peas in a pod, birds of a feather. Both of us had flinched, winced and wished ourselves elsewhere during the debates, as presidential candidates badgered and nagged the moderators and struggled mightily to cut each other off. We both had been driven to distraction by negative advertising. We both wished for candidates who would quit demonizing their opponents and, instead, provide real substance to back up their declared willingness to “work across the aisle.”
Having found a comrade, I called the driver’s attention to my Center of the American West T-shirt, prominently displaying a quotation from Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt’s close friend.”It is a greater thing,” Pinchot wrote in 1910, “to be a good citizen than to be a good Republican or a good Democrat.” When I presented this quotation in a recent class, the enthusiastic response of the students was spirit-lifting. The shuttle driver matched the students in his agreement with Pinchot’s quotation, even if it was unlikely that his employer would let him wear this shirt to work.
I did not know a thing about the shuttle driver’s partisan affiliation, nor did he know anything about mine (which is not surprising, since I am not entirely certain of this myself). But we were of one mind in wanting a civil, honest reckoning with the urgent issues of our day: the deficit and the pending “fiscal cliff,” the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the need to maintain and rejuvenate the nation’s infrastructure, the conundrum of figuring out what makes education effective, and the far-from-certain methods by which the federal government can help create jobs. We wanted candidates who, taking their lead from former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, would speak frankly about the necessity of both higher taxes and reduced spending, and who would openly use the word “sacrifice.”
And we could not, for our lives, figure out how to get our preferences and hopes to register in the current campaigns.
For the many Americans who share these frustrations, the work of two University of Colorado faculty members offers great promise.
CU psychology professor Leaf Van Boven has been doing extraordinary research challenging the popular perception that polarization is the operating mode preferred by the American citizenry, and revealing, instead, the existence of a majority of moderates.
Van Boven’s work makes a close match to the findings of CU business professor Philip M. Fernbach. People asked to “justify” their political position become more entrenched and less moderate, Fernbach reports in a New York Times essay co-authored with Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown University. But ask people to “explain how [their] policy ideas work,” and “they become more moderate in their political views.” When people “explain, not just assert” they come to recognize the limits of their knowledge and become correspondingly more flexible and tolerant.
Thus, Sloman and Fernbach argue, if we are tired of extremism, “we can start to fix it by acknowledging that we know a lot less than we think.”
In a campaign season in which advertisements, speeches, and debate performances consisted almost entirely of assertion, the idea of “explaining” comes forward as a wonderfully appealing and restorative alternative.
Since presidential candidates seem to be finding the “battleground state” (a grim phrase in itself) of Colorado to be a destination for frequent visits, we have at least a modest geographical opportunity to bring the work of Sloman and Fernbach to wider attention.
Keeping our hopes for improvement at a realistically modest pitch requires us to return to the subject of the nation’s founders. Nostalgia may conjure up eras when civility and reasoned argument characterized the political conduct of the American people. Scholars would have a hard time finding evidence for this delightful phase of history. The last place to look for it would be in the founding days of the nation, when Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans fought each other tooth and nail.
A casualty of those fights was the friendship between Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In 1801, they cut off communication. After a decade of distance and silence, their mutual friend Benjamin Rush persuaded them to correspond.
In the further reaches of hopeful dreams for the future, presidential candidates would read the wonderful volume of their correspondence (“The Adams-Jefferson Letters,” edited by Lester J. Cappon); moderators could begin the debates by asking rival candidates to speak to each other in the manner that Jefferson and Adams put forward for posterity’s imitation.
At a more modest level of aspiration, I propose for consideration a new, day-after-the-election national ritual.
Fellow citizens, public officials, and aspiring candidates, join me in starting this Wednesday in this manner: contemplate what Adams wrote to Jefferson on July 15, 1813, and then imagine a world in which we took to heart the example that these two old men bequeathed to us:
“You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.”