After a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion and two horrific mass shootings committed by teenagers, America’s raging debates over abortion rights and gun control have grown even more scorching. Search industriously and you can probably find examples of calm analysis and fair-minded commentary about why Roe v. Wade should or shouldn’t be overturned and why new limits on gun ownership would or wouldn’t be a good idea. But “calm” and “fair-minded” don’t describe most of what passes for public discourse in these maniacal, angry times.
Far too many of today’s political arguments begin from the premise that those on the other side of a controversial issue are driven by repugnant views or sick motives. That attitude pervades the abortion and gun debates. Supporters of Roe are “evil monsters who don’t think twice about slaughtering unborn babies,” a conservative radio host tells his many online followers. “There is no number of murdered little children that is too many for Republicans,” writes a prominent liberal journalist after the massacre in Uvalde. Such is the quality of rhetoric you encounter if you spend any time scrolling through social media or watching cable news — resentment, mockery, rage, and the conviction that anyone who disagrees does so in bad faith.
This isn’t merely abrasive politics or overheated partisanship, which are to be expected in heterogeneous democratic societies. It is toxic polarization — the populist cancer that has metastasized on both the right and the left of American culture. It turns every disagreement into a binary war of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, enlightened vs. barbaric. It shreds the public sense of moral community — the presumption that, whatever our disagreements, we all operate within a shared tradition and are pursuing the common good.
Countless Americans have lost an essential component of citizenship: the ability to grant that their opponents are sincere and that at least some of their claims are not easily dismissed. Even if you are unwaveringly pro-life and regard abortion as a tragic act of violence, you should be able to recognize that to a woman who is in the first stages of pregnancy and desperate to avoid the turmoil, pain, expense, or trauma of bearing an unwanted child, the right to an abortion is a fundamental matter of liberty and bodily autonomy. Even if you are a fierce defender of Roe v. Wade and have always believed that abortion rights are indispensable, you should be able to concede the threshold scientific truth that a fetus at 12 weeks is unmistakably human, alive, and vulnerable.
“The truth is that the best argument on each side is a damn good one, and until you acknowledge that fact, you aren’t speaking or even thinking honestly about the issue,” wrote Caitlin Flanagan in a powerful essay in The Atlantic in 2019. “You certainly aren’t going to convince anybody.”
The same is true when it comes to guns. Yes, the Constitution enshrines “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” But that shouldn’t inhibit even the staunchest supporter of Second Amendment rights from admitting that firearms take a ghastly toll on American communities and that reasonable restrictions on acquiring and carrying guns are both sensible and, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, “presumptively lawful.” At the same time, even people who would ban all handguns and assault weapons if they could ought to have the intellectual honesty to affirm, with Senator Bernie Sanders, that “99.9 percent” of gun owners are law-abiding.
It is not betraying your convictions or abandoning your allies to show a measure of grace to those with whom you profoundly disagree or to concede that your cause doesn’t have a monopoly on integrity. Self-government is not a zero-sum game — inevitably it requires compromise, and compromise is possible only when honest debate is possible. Yet when it comes to our thorniest, most divisive political controversies, such as abortion and gun control, leading politicians, activists, and opinion leaders act as if they are in a war to the death, in which the goal is not just for their side to win but to ensure that the other side is seen to fail.
In his 2020 book “Morality,” the late Lord Jonathan Sacks — a celebrated rabbi, philosopher, public intellectual, and British peer — lamented the death of civility that is corroding public dialogue and destroying Western society.
“Civility is more than good manners,” wrote Sacks. “It is a recognition that violent speech leads to violent deeds; that listening respectfully to your opponents is a necessary part of the politics of a free society; and that liberal democracy . . . must keep the peace between contending groups by honoring us all equally, in both our diversity and our commonality.”
As a college freshman long ago, I took a yearlong course called “Politics and Values.” I learned a lot in that course, which covered subjects as varied as economics, nuclear power, and European forms of government. Most memorable to me in retrospect, however, is a rule that was enforced by the professor during our animated classroom arguments: Before you could challenge another student’s opinion, you had to first summarize what he or she had said. When you have to fairly restate arguments you don’t agree with, it makes it hard to treat an honest difference of opinion with the sort of contempt and bile that are now so common.
If we don’t find a way to rein them in, hardline populism and toxic polarization will, I am convinced, shatter what is left of our democracy. And the only effective way of reining them in is by hearing out those with whom you disagree.
Two weeks before D-Day in 1944, Judge Learned Hand — one of the most admired jurists in US history — addressed a vast audience assembled at New York’s Central Park for “I Am an American” Day. His topic was “The Spirit of Liberty” and his central message was that blind, inflexible certitude is deadly to the preservation of democratic freedom.
“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right,” Hand told the crowd. It is “the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women” and “which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.” There is virtually no hint of that spirit in our brutal political battles over abortion and guns and so many other hotly contested issues. We have all but forgotten how to reason together, how to compromise, how to keep disagreement from devolving into enmity. Our culture is fraying at the seams, and it won’t knit itself back together.