IN MY 9TH GRADE DEBATING CLASS, we were tasked with an interesting exercise, the lessons of which I have never forgotten. After choosing sides in a successful debate, we were then instructed to switch sides and argue the counter-position. What I learned was amazing – that if I could not formulate an argument in favor of my political opponents, then I was at a disadvantage arguing against them. Similarly, I have to constantly check my pro-Clinton sentiments and guard against having them become “religious” – that binary state of intractable allegiance that precludes critical thought.
Remembering those lessons, I recently challenged myself to list the things I liked about Trump. It required me to step away from the comfortable certitude of my convictions – at least for the exercise. I didn’t think I could ever do that, frankly. But when I did, it smoothed out the inconsistencies in my own arguments and added depth to the convictions I did have.
The Trump phenomenon seems to share a growing universal mindset around the world. I cannot back that contention as fact, but it is something I am observing and the examples I see are illuminating. Shrill allegiance to Brexit precipitated an unexpected backlash of voter regret which underscored the blind-spot in critical thought among those who supported it, and exposed the shallows in the convictions of the leaders who deserted it. The rise of elected “dictators” like Duterte in the Philippines, a candidate who ran on a Trumpian “tell it like it is” platform, could be an alarming bellwether. Even ISIS shares paradoxical parallels to the direction of American politics in the frenzied scapegoatism and unquestioning devotion of followers to an ideology, such as when a constitutional amendment crafted from intellectual argument is followed like an unquestioned biblical precept. In many of these cases, the argument is not that the status quo is corrupt, but that the reins given to a seductive alternative prove naive. Faith and politics can co-exist in a tolerant democracy, but they rarely mix well as policy.
I think the most important question goes deeper than Trump or Clinton or a third party alternative. It is the conversation we are not having that concerns me most. The issue at hand is not so much who we support, but why we support them. The life experiences that bring us to our choices and make them so personal can be respected even when we disagree on the choices themselves. But that deeper conversation must start by looking inward. The true challenge is if our preconceptions and prejudices can survive being submerged to the discomfort of critical self-examination.
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