I have a deep personal desire, need might be the better word, to find a path to constructive political dialogue. At the same time I have increasing doubts about my ability to do this and whether attempting to do so is a good use of my time.
But rather that rattle off the list of doubts, let me hit this from a different angle. What would be the features of a constructive dialogue?
The first thing is that it cannot be a debate, because a debate is fundamentally about winning and losing. The dialogue has to be based on mutual curiosity: I want to understand your point of view, not convert you to mine.
It can't focus too quickly on political issues, either. A person's stand on a specific issue is an extrapolation of their basic world view. If two people have different world views then they necessarily approach any given issue from two points of departure--different priorities, different ideas about how the world works, different definitions of crucial concepts ("freedom," for example). They will almost certainly talk past one another. Worse, they're quite likely to end up arguing, in effect, that my world view makes sense and yours doesn't.
So the first main feature is a basic understanding of each other's political worldview. Therefore my usual practice, whenever possible, is to ask people to offer their political autobiography, although I usually find a way to ease them into offering it rather than to ask directly. By political autobiography I mean the basic values and life experiences that created their political perspective. Many people are happy to tell me. Some are not. With regard to those who aren't, my impression is that they feel defensive or embarrassed. What if they sound silly or naive? What if they can't readily say how they came to believe what they believe? What if they've never even thought about it?
It isn't necessary to view the skittish ones as not worth talking to. But for the time being it's best to talk about something other than politics.
It can be useful to give one's political autobiography first. It's easier for other people to show vulnerability if you're willing to show some vulnerability and it provides a model for them to follow.
So by way of illustration, I'll give you my own--some of it anyway--as nearly as I can make it out.
I grew up in North Carolina in the 1960's. My parents were both Democrats. The martyred president John F. Kennedy was a personal hero of mine and at age 8 I thought I bore a close resemblance to the way he looked at age 8. Given that I harbored political ambitions in my youth, this seemed to be a good augury. (It did not occur to me that my own family was bereft of the wealth and built-in connections to the power elite that made JFK's political ambitions a good deal more realistic than mine.) I agreed with everything I understood JFK to stand for, which to my mind basically meant a commitment to civil rights, a concern for ordinary people, an optimism about America and--perhaps most fundamentally--a belief in the power of government to do good.
I also imbibed the view that the term "liberal" meant "available to reason." I'm not sure where that came from. But when my daughter Chloe and I happened to watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner the other night, I instantly realized that as a child I had been powerfully impressed by Matt Drayton (Tracy Spencer) and Christina Drayton (Katharine Hepburn). Certainly, as a young white Southerner I had fully understood (as Chloe could not, without considerable explanation from me), how it would pose a dilemma for the Draytons when their daughter Joanna (Katharine Houghton) showed up to announce that she was going to marry a black physician (Sidney Poitier). But Christine's comment to Matt made perfect sense to me:
She's 23 years old, and the way she is, is just exactly the way we brought her up to be. We answered her questions. She listened to our answers. We told her it was wrong to believe that white people were somehow essentially superior to black people—or the brown or the red or the yellow ones, for that matter. People who thought that way were wrong to think that way. Sometimes hateful, usually stupid, but always wrong. That’s what we said, and when we said it, we did not add, “but don’t ever fall in love with a colored man.”That was liberalism as I understood it. Anyone who felt otherwise was simply crimped and closed-minded. My agreement with Christine Drayton did not mean, of course, that I did not harbor a deep reservoir of racist views. No white child born in the Jim Crow South--even in the final years of its existence--could escape that dubious birthright. Nor did my agreement mean that I would have approved the match had Joanna's choice fallen upon anyone but a black man of consummate achievement, good looks and winsome charm, who dressed like a WASP, talked like a WASP, and had a physiognomy not far removed from a WASP. My point, however, is that I didn't grow up thinking that racial prejudice was OK or justifiable.
As I learned American history in middle school and high school, the Gilded Age made a huge impression on me. Standard Oil, US Steel, and the railroads did everything they could to eliminate competition, exploit labor, and rig the economy to favor themselves. And I thought of government as the only entity bigger than the great corporations. I never thought of government as somehow being inherently in opposition to the people. That still strikes me as a strange idea. I thought of government as Lincoln did: "of the people, by the people, and for the people." To me it was a good thing that through government we could restrict child labor, bust trusts, give the ordinary joe a 40-hour work week, and create regulatory agencies to ensure that businesses sold wholesome food.
Basically, there are always bullies and enemies and challenges big enough to defeat any ordinary person. Therefore the only way that ordinary people can prevail is by banding together. That's why I have always believed in good government and labor unions and collective bargaining.
I understand that government can be inept or corrupt or tyrannical. I'm an historian, for crying out loud. But the famous declaration by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist--"I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub"--strikes me as so absurd it fails even as humor.
You can see already that it would be a sterile exercise for me to "debate" a specific issue with someone who was fundamentally suspicious of government. Our points of departure would be hopelessly far apart. Before we could get anywhere, we would have to explore the reasons for my basic faith in government and his basic lack of faith.
Let me end here. The story is incomplete but by now you have the idea of what a political autobiography looks like. It doesn't need to be sophisticated. In fact, if it's sophisticated it's somewhat suspect, because our basic world views are, in the nature of the case, simplistic, naive, and incomplete when they first emerge. But they stick with us, and they exert a powerful grip.