A couple of days ago, I received an email from one of the progressive, activist American political groups that contacts me with updates and calls to action. This particular group was organizing a defence of Obama’s controversial and hard fought health care program, in anticipation of the impending attack by the incoming, republican majority House of Representatives.
I’m fully behind Obamacare, despite its many flaws and shortcomings. To me, it’s a halting, limping half step in the right direction. A much needed step. I’m absolutely opposed to the effort to repeal or weaken it, and so I was eager and willing to add my support to the effort.
However, the message introducing the campaign was disturbing. It referred to a "...Republican majority bought and paid for by Wall Street-run corporations and their shill groups.” And it went on to state that, "Everyone knows that the Republican Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the health insurance industry and other profit-hungry corporations."
I confess that, emotionally, I feel the same way about caricature Republicans. I’m disturbed by their planks and their attacks on Democrats that take a similarly dismissive and denigrating tone. With the merits of health care and of the progressive agenda so clear to me, it’s sometimes difficult to credit anyone who sees things differently as possessing either a mind or a conscience.
But I remind myself that most living, breathing Republicans don’t fit the easy caricature any more than progressives fit the starry-eyed, soft-headed caricature that opponents would make us into. Rather, many are intelligent, caring, patriotic Americans who simply don’t see or calculate these matters as I do. As much as it may frustrate my wish to order the political world according to my values and perceptions, there are people on the Republican right who care about the country, who sacrifice and give selflessly, who agonize over policies and positions, and who come to slow, careful decisions about the strategies and tactics that will best take America forward. Just as I and others on the left do. While I know that there are Republicans who fit the ugly stereotype of the moralistic yet hypocritical and unsympathetic profiteer (just as there are a few bubble-headed idiots on my side) it doesn’t do justice to any political faction to judge it entirely by its most extreme and dysfunctional elements.
We on the left have debated among ourselves the proper approach to health care, the pros and cons of is its implementation, and we waged civil war over the importance of the now defunct “public option". Can it be categorically wrong for others to question, challenge or even to reject it because of some of its less appealing aspects? Is there nothing we can learn from honest, open debate? Perhaps it is true that not many conservatives will discuss and negotiate with open minds. Isn’t that equally true of progressives?
It’s well established that war is made possible by dehumanizing the opponent. It’s infinitely easier to shoot or drop bombs on those we view as animals and demons than on our fellows. Similarly, in politics, it’s so much easier to dismiss the arguments and concerns of the indecent and morally corrupt than of those we love and respect. It’s a cheap, immoral and dishonest approach to tear down another’s character in order to have an easier time dismissing their ideas.
In politics as in life, there are natural dividing lines and natural constituencies. The easiest thing is always to fall in line with the politics of one’s own class, race, religion or other demographic. But it has always struck me how much more powerful it is when an individual or group stands up for a cause that’s not primarily its own. It’s one thing to support gay rights if I myself suffer by virtue of discrimination against gay men. But it’s quite another to speak out on issues of sexual orientation when I’m a privileged member of the dominant heterosexuality. It’s in no way surprising if I – a black man – stand up for the rights of my own people, but quite another thing if I am a white man, looking beyond the privilege of my advantageous pedigree to champion the cause of oppressed minorities.
Similarly, if we are committed to a more mature and dynamic politic, one that embraces differences of opinion as well as of ethnicity, belief system and sexual orientation, and working in the interest of all its citizens, mustn’t we be able and willing to look for the sense and intelligence and compassion in the arguments of our opponents, and even to celebrate them?
Health care, like abortion, and gun control, and freedom of speech, is an issue that will touch on many sensitive nerves and challenge conceptions. But looking carefully at the policies, and openly debating their pros and cons, will generate a better body of solutions than continuing the hateful warfare of self-righteousness that dominates today’s politics. And if we self-styled progressives won’t take this stand, who will?