Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1947 that democracy is the worst possible form of government, except for all the others. He could have been talking about American democracy today.
Democracy is messy. Challenging. Unpredictable. But it also means freedom, the opportunity to have a say in our own lives, an inherent recognition that each of us matters—no matter how different we are or how much we may disagree. Would we trade that in? I think not.
Many on the left are outraged that millions voted for a man they deem uninformed, foolish, shallow and vain. They refuse to engage with the other side, preferring instead to express their anger and excoriating those voters for their stupidity. The implication is that the voices and opinions of others don’t matter, or that their judgment is somehow inferior. This is neither in the spirit of our democracy, nor is it effective.
Disappointment and outrage result in no change, unless channeled into reasoned discourse. Today’s refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue and careful listening is the continuation of a pattern started long before the election, a pattern we desperately need to break.
Beginning prior to and continuing through the past election cycle, the Democratic Party’s leadership failed to hear or address the real economic concerns of many Americans, who felt legitimately alienated and disenfranchised by the political system. Then came the left’s vilification of Trump supporters, which pushed them further in his direction. Now we have the current impasse, in which so many progressives and moderates seethe with recrimination and vitriol. The president is accused of playing to his base and reliving his election victory—but many progressives are equally guilty of reliving their anguished election defeat.
Moving forward is a process. It begins by forgiving and listening actively, as well as wanting to be heard. In the next congressional election, progressives need the votes of centrist Trump supporters. That means engaging with those who don’t yet see that their self-interest will be better served by a moderate agenda than by the economic policies this administration is attempting to enact. But they won’t be convinced of anything if our chosen forms of communication are invective, raised voices, or the silent treatment.
There is a key tool that makes our democracy work, and we seem to have lost sight of how essential it is. Compromise. It’s become a dirty word—but in a healthy democracy compromise is indisputably the highest good. It affords each side some—but not all—of what it wants. When one or more parties demand 100% of what they want, or nothing, we end up with what we now have. Paralysis. It doesn’t work and it never will. Intransigence may achieve a short-term goal, but in the long run, it only weakens the ability of a democracy to function.
It’s interesting that even in this gridlocked congress where compromise is notable for its absence, at least some of the president’s failures have been the result of moderates coming together against the extremes.
For example, despite the president’s vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his threats to Republicans who refused to vote for repeal, the bill failed. That failure was in part due to the hard line drawn by the Freedom Caucus—but centrist Republicans voted against repeal, too. They could agree with each other and with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle that reducing medical benefits for their constituents was unwise.
Another example is that party leaders of both Congressional houses are working together on a budget plan to fund the government for the rest of 2017. It’s likely that this plan will ignore the president’s request to fund his border wall. Perhaps this is a hopeful sign that progressives and conservatives in Congress can still cooperate.
So, how can we bring voters from both sides together?
We need to focus on common goals—peace, security, good jobs, safe neighborhoods, effective and affordable healthcare, functioning schools. We all want honest elected officials whose allegiance is first to us, their constituents, and only secondarily to the political party they’re allied with. It may require that we jettison those in our own parties whose leanings are so extreme that they are by definition unachievable. Both the socialist left wing of the Democratic Party, and the extreme, limited-government far right of the Republican Party, hold unachievable views. We’ve allowed them to use their votes to push both parties closer to the extremes, further away from the center, and further from any possibility of compromise.
On both sides, there are Americans so deeply entrenched in their own world views, they’re incapable of engaging in dialogue with those who think differently. But the country’s best chance of bringing about the change we need—and the healing we crave—is for reasonable people on both sides to come around to compromise in the center. Perhaps, the third party we need is neither a Socialist Party on the left, nor a Freedom Coalition on the far right, but rather a Moderate Middle willing to work together against the extremes.
We must start by putting behind us the ugly 2016 election from which we emerged a damaged, angry and divided nation. Ask what part we might have played in the nastiness. Reach across to neighbors who might be on the other side of the aisle. Remember that although we are a sprawling, diverse people with different lives, religions, cultures, geographies, professions and economies, at base most of us want the same things. Our democracy is delicate. Either we remember that we are in this together, or we risk being torn apart.