Most of us don’t want a civil war.

Most of us want politicians who are smart enough to understand the issues and humble enough to know when they need outside expertise.

Most of us want drivers at a four-way stop sign to go in the order of when they arrived at the intersection.

And yet the media insist we’re divided. …

Consider poll numbers right after Jan. 6. (The one in 2021, not the year in which you’re reading this.) A Reuters/Ipsos poll released two days after the Capitol assault found:

  • 57% of Americans wanted Trump out. Immediately. Not Jan. 20.
  • 72% strongly opposed the assailants’ actions. 9% somewhat opposed.
  • 79% described the assailants as either “criminals” or “fools.”
  • 55% strongly disapproved of Trump’s actions on Jan. 6. 7% somewhat disapproved. 6% “lean toward” disapproval. Only 16% “strongly approved.” (Again, this was 18 months before the hearings on the matter.)
  • 57% said lawmakers trying to block certification of the election were “criminals” or “fools,” while another 16% didn’t know.

The purpose here isn’t to put forth some sort of Milquetoast Moderatism. There’s no middle ground between “the left” and the people who ran into the Capitol alongside people bearing Confederate flags and anti-Semitic slogans. The people on the “left” who commit political violence are swiftly denounced and hold no real power; the people on the “right” who do so are given political cover by a party that refuses to participate in an investigation of an assault on democracy.

But there’s no reason We the Common People Who Have Things in Common can’t rise above all of the hatred, all of the ignorance and all of the fundamental disrespect that manifests itself everywhere from political protests to merge lanes on the interstate. We have more in common that we think, and we need to demonstrate that in a show of strength to disarm the haters.

And we agree on a lot more than simply denouncing the Proud Boys, “antifa” or the misinformation miscreants who have taken over cable “news” in prime time. We generally agree on guns, abortion and immigration. Agreement, though, makes poor prime-time ratings.

The social contract I’m proposing here has three stages:

  1. Stop the Republican Party now. Apologies to old-school Republicans, but given the evolution of the two-party system, the GOP mainstream has become driven by a desire to “own the libs” and limit our freedoms to do so. The Democrats are the lesser of two evils, or in some cases, a bit better than that.
  2. Get rid of the two-party system.
  3. Just be nicer. Period.

In doing so, we’ll have better tools for building on the things on which most of us agree. Maybe the good feelings will even trickle down to four-way stops. Or at least stop people in a backup on the interstate from pulling into the shoulder and passing five cars before merging back in.

Through a lot of American history, we’ve agreed on what we wanted to do but disagreed on the specifics. The sooner we can get back to disagreeing on things like “the role of private corporations in health care” instead of things like “the use of misinformation to enable violent hatred” or “whether it’s OK to threaten health officials,” the better.

So the following is a list of common goals. We can debate the specifics while the white supremacists go back to playing soldier in the woods, “antifa” goes back to the drum circles, and Putin’s apologists fight their Twitter bans.

Here goes …

The basics

1. Amplify experts, not “alternative facts”

We should be debating how to address climate change, not whether it exists. We shouldn’t be able to lie about crime statistics to demonize immigrants or people of color. We shouldn’t spread fatal deceptions about COVID-19. And we shouldn’t be stirring up violent mobs with fanciful tales of election fraud that have been rejected by every possible adjudicating body. (Also, we did indeed land on the moon, and the Earth is not flat.)

An epidemiologist might know more about COVID-19 than your “liberal”-bashing pastor. Climate scientists might know more about climate than economists. If you don’t believe that, let your doctor fix your plumbing and vice versa.

I know, I know — she was great in the Iron Man films and on SNL.

A journalist spends more time researching the issues than the majority of people do. They’re human, and they’re subject to biases — most of them not partisan but economic. For some reason, we’ve decided to exalt talk-show hosts who don’t do any homework or even admit that their shows aren’t good sources of fact. And we’re getting medical info from Gwyneth Paltrow rather than medical experts. We’re falling for dangerous conspiracy theories.

It’s too easy for progressives to think this is simply a right-wing problem or limited to Joe Rogan’s podcast. The fact is that a lot of today’s bullshit stems from the postmodern relativism incubated in academia. You can’t peddle theories about science being nothing more than a hegemonic patriarchal social construct and then expect people to show up at a climate change rally. This anti-expert bias has, of course, moved into the media.

You don’t have to assume someone’s right just because someone has initials after their names. We have plenty of quack doctors shilling for bullshit products, after all. But if an overwhelming number of biologists see evolution as the fundamental backbone of biology, you might want to use some skepticism when you step into that creationist museum.

2. Respect empathy — and each other

The USA is built in part around a belief in the “rugged individual.” And to some extent, that’s not a bad thing. Nothing wrong with self-reliance. The problem is when we think we owe nothing to each other, and that’s a problem that’s growing.

If World War II happened today, would we have the national resolve to sacrifice everything from our material comfort to our lives to turn back fascism? Back then, people ran unprotected at machine-gun nests to help their fellow human being. At the height of COVID, a lot of people wouldn’t even get a shot or wear a mask in an effort to protect other people from getting a disease that could kill them, hospitalize them or give them long-term problems. “It’s my choice whether I want to protect myself,” the argument went. The arguer showed no capacity to consider the impact of letting a disease run rampant, putting a lot of other people — or even themselves — into overtaxed hospitals.

A bit of hostility isn’t new. We had an actual Civil War. We’ve always had bumper stickers venting hostility. But it’s becoming more mainstream, with public servants (please note the word “servant”) no longer trying to stay above the fray. It’s bad enough when someone puts a “Let’s Go Brandon” sticker on a car. It’s worse when Florida’s governor alludes to that juvenile slogan while signing an order against COVID vaccine mandates.

We’ve turned empathy into a weakness. Donald Trump Jr. in particular loves to gloat about people feeling “triggered.” The people he’s trying to bully are far more courageous than he is because they’re brave enough to care. We need that bravery.

3. No more violent or destructive protests

Yes, this applies to the downtown Portland occupation and other left-wing protests as well. Leaders who matter, like Joe Biden and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, denounced the looting and the attempts to bait police into responding.

It applies to showing up at Josh Hawley’s house (near mine, incidentally) or Brett Kavanaugh’s house.

This isn’t a case of “bothsidesism.” It’s just recognition that this is a reasonable conversation:

“Jan. 6 was abhorrent.”

“Would you say the same about the protest in East Urbanville in which someone was killed?”

“Yes.”

Well, that was simple.

So no more destruction of property. Public or private. Doesn’t matter. The people who suffer from this destruction — the shopowners, the sanitation workers, the taxpayers, the Capitol Police — are never the people you’re trying to hold accountable.

No more death threats toward election officials trying to oversee a fair vote or school board members trying to keep schools safe. Nor more assaulting college professors who bring conservative-ish speakers to campus. And “Antifa”? You’ve given anti-fascism a bad name.

Again, no “bothsidesism” or “whataboutism” here. One “side” is more dangerous than the other when you look at the number of armed groups rehearsing for war and the willingness to stampede past the police into the Capitol, and they still have apologists in Congress. Doesn’t matter. You can denounce murder while also denouncing sucker-punching someone in the street.

4. Listening, not lecturing

Speaking of counterproductive measures — “cancel culture” and “woke” excesses are clearly turning people against progressives. Rushing to judgment inevitably leads to hypocrisy.

To give an example for Millennials and younger generations: A lot of people over 35 didn’t grow up knowing how to be allies or anti-racist. If you’re under 35 and learned such things, congratulations. If you’d rather pass judgment on older people (and dismiss their life experience/expertise), isn’t that a little ageist?

If you won’t listen to other people, why would they listen to you?

We need to fight racism. Obviously. But that means unifying people against racism, not making them feel they can never help. Condemning other people only hardens your alleged enemies’ minds. We need persuasion.

5. Listening, not labeling

Norm Macdonald greets Phil Hartman, except these are the real-life versions. RIP Norm and Phil.

Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff wrote the following:

“For democracies to work, politicians need to respect the difference between an enemy and an adversary. An adversary is someone you want to defeat. An enemy is someone you have to destroy. With adversaries, compromise is honorable: Today’s adversary could be tomorrow’s ally. With enemies, on the other hand, compromise is appeasement.”

On a more basic level, we equate listening with weakness. Trump rose to power because he seemed less willing to compromise than the Bush family and their peers. And he didn’t listen to anybody. Not even his intelligence briefing, according to those radicals at the CIA.

Listening will help to get rid of the labels. A “progressive” is simply someone who wants progress, which should apply to all of us. A “liberal” should be someone who loves anything that liberates. A “Christian” should be someone who welcomes other people with humility and compassion in the name of Christ, reserving judgment to higher powers. A “Southerner” is someone who lives in or was born in the South, not necessarily an uneducated racist.

Joe Biden isn’t a communist. He’s not even socialist. And in this country, we hardly know what “socialist” means, anyway. We certainly don’t know what “conservative” means — the Venn diagram between Ronald Reagan’s ideology and Donald Trump’s is nearly two separate circles. There’s also a considerable amount of diversity within the Democratic Party, plus third parties such as the Libertarians, Greens, actual Socialists, and the American Solidarity (Christian Democrat) Party.

When we see multiple perspectives rather than two “sides,” we can stop the knee-jerk opposition. Put country above party. Stop whataboutism. Be skeptical, but not cynical.

What we need

6. Work toward economic security

Trump preyed on those who felt they were being left behind in Obama’s strong economic recovery. We can debate the solutions he offered and the sincerity with which he offered them, but we can see that people wanted to feel like they were heard and that someone was going to take care of them. Democrats should make the argument that a strong safety net and opportunities to switch careers are the best path forward, and Republicans should certainly have a say in how to do that.

7. Let no one go uninsured

Obamacare, single-payer, Medicare for all or most, or a public-private partnership we haven’t considered — debate the options all you want, but recognize that the model of having employers foot the bill has fallen apart because it’s an albatross on small businesses and the “gig economy” leaves people stranded. Also, consider the economic argument that someone is paying for emergency treatment for the uninsured, and that’s hardly the most efficient system.

Another advantage of #6 and #7 here: If your basic needs are met, you’re free to innovate. You can take risks. A safety net with insurance is stereotyped as a benefit for leeches, lazy people who refuse to work. If you’d like to build in safeguards, go ahead. But bear in mind that this isn’t a strictly socialist idea. Universal basic income, after all, has long had conservative backers. (Not that we’re keeping labels.)

The reforms

8. Rein in presidential power.

We shouldn’t have to spend the last days of a president’s term worrying that he’s going to pardon everyone who has inflicted damage on our country. And both parties have complained over the decades about the expanding power of the executive branch.

9. Rein in the major parties.

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.” – George Washington

“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” – John Adams

They warned us of a cycle of retribution between two warring parties who put their own interests ahead of the country’s. They anticipated a future in which “owning the libs” (or “cons”) passes as ideology.

The point of elections isn’t to put a specific “party” in office. It’s to hold people accountable for their misdeeds. And mistruths.

10. Reconsider our election process.

The Electoral College disenfranchises people who aren’t in “swing” states, and it can easily give us presidents who didn’t win a majority of votes. Tying yourself in legal pretzels to try to invalidate or suppress votes is anti-democratic.

We can also get rid of the “lesser or two evils” phenomenon with voting systems that give third parties a chance. Yeah, some of them are a little “out there,” but plenty of them deserve to be heard. The problem today is that a candidate can win a Senate seat or electoral votes with less than a majority. Major Party A gets 49% of the vote in a state, Major Party B gets 48%, and Major Party B asks the other 3% why they wasted their votes or ruined Hillary Clinton’s chances of stopping Donald Trump. Consider a “ranked-choice” system or approval voting, and we should at least have a winner the majority of us can live with.

Maybe even get rid of presidential primaries, which give the first few states and states with “caucuses” far too much of a say.

11. Focus on solutions

It’s all well and good to put forth an idea like getting rid of prisons. But you have to follow up with details on how that’s supposed to work — in this case, without rapists and murderers roaming the streets.

And let’s not pretend problems just magically go away. From Y2K to polluted rivers, we human beings have solved a lot of issues.

Photo by Kelly on Pexels.com

Common-ground issues

Polls find that we agree on a lot of things:

  • A wealth tax
  • Minor tweaks to Obamacare — or allowing people to buy into Medicare. Anything that will keep people from going bankrupt because of an illness.
  • On guns: background checks and assault-weapon bans
  • Some legal abortion — at least, not a total ban
  • Legal immigration, which has been severely inhibited by some of the same people trying to stop illegal immigration

We can agree on a few more.

  • Job training. We’ll work with educators to prepare you for jobs of the 2020s, not the 1920s.
  • Education without crippling debt. We’ll work with colleges to get you in the door. If you can only afford to spend two years in college now, we’ll work to create a two-year degree that means something. You’ll be an informed citizen with job skills. And whenever you’re ready to complete a four-year degree, online or in-person, you can pick right back up where you left off.

How will we pay for all this? Simple. We’ll make the wealthiest people in the country pay a sum approaching what they paid back in the old days when America really was great, when we rebuilt the world after World War II and became the shining light of freedom and prosperity.

And in those days, the gap between rich and poor was smaller.

We surely also agree on rebuilding infrastructure — I don’t know of a “let us fall through a crumbling bridge” lobby. And improving education, even if the approaches vary wildly.

“Conservatives” can help to solve those problems when they don’t deny they exist.

“Progressives” can help to solve those problems when they’re not taking every question of viability as an ignorant attack by a worthless person.

“Centrists” can help to solve those problems when they’re following the facts and not simply trying to please everyone’s ill-supported whims.

“Libertarians” can help … somehow. Maybe?

Fascists and communists can move out of the way. Preferably to an as-yet-unpopulated part of the Sahara or Siberia.

And most of us don’t need these labels. We need to see past them.

Also, if you’re merging when an interstate drops one lane, wait your turn and do a zipper merge. Not because it’s the law, but because it’s the right bloody thing to do.

Deal?

3 thoughts on “A social contract (updated for 2022)

  1. I don’t agree with everything, here, Beau. I think “listening” is overrated when I’ve been listening for more than 50 years and haven’t learned anything new from the Right in at least 30. Everything new I have learned since then has come from the left, mainly because the Left is working on policy proposals that would actually 1) work, 2) address societal ills in a constructive way, and 3) not violate the Constitution. The Right gave up any interest in that kind of work decades ago.

    And if you support policies that pose a direct and substantial threat to my life, health, or wellbeing, or to those of people I love, then I’m really not interested in your justification, and I don’t want you in my life anymore. I adopted that policy six or seven years ago, and I am amazed at how much less stressed I feel because I don’t have to accommodate the tender fee-fees of people I love who essentially want me dead.

    All of that said, I, too, wish for more political unity that reflects the policy consensus among Americans. I don’t think that that is achievable *now* because of the split between people who support the Constitution and the seditionists. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue working toward it. And I was pleased to see your endorsement of ranked-choice voting, which I think would ease some of our current problems within the bounds of the Constitution. (I don’t think a constitutional amendment promoting Mom and apple pie could get passed and ratified in our lifetimes, let alone one tossing out the Electoral College. Another possible solution is for as many states as possible to enact laws requiring that the state’s electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote, although I could see that backfiring.)

    All in all, a worthy column. Well done.

    1. Thanks as always, Lex.

      I’m carefully extending a hand to people who honestly believe or have rationalized the notion that the GOP’s bluster is harmless and their policies work. It’s fitting that I just watched “The Tudors” series and found myself yelling at the screen, “Quit executing people!” We also teamed up with Stalin to defeat evil and rebuilt Germany (well, West) rather quickly, so I’m still a believer in reconciliation.

      Just like we did in the USA after the Civil War.

      Uh oh …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s