I Know I’m Not, but What Aren’t You?

I have no idea what most of my friends are for, but I know in great detail what most of them are against. Many of them, of course, are against the same things that I am against–which is why we are friends. Some, though, are against things that I am not against (but we can be friends anyway). And a few of them–and these are more like acquaintances–are against me. Being against things, it seems, is what it currently means to have a political position.

In the contemporary political environment, 'conservatives' are people who hate Barack Obama.
This is not really a new thing. Being political has always meant being against ideas. When I was in high school, my friends and I were Republicans because we were all against abortion, gun control, evolution, and the ERA. Once I got to college, of course, I became a Democrat so I could be against things like imperialism, poverty, war, and, of course, racism, sexism, and homophobia.

It seems, though, that many of us have now decided to skip the ideological middlepersons and just start hating people–and calling that our political position. In the contemporary political environment,  “conservatives” are people who hate Barack Obama. They can hate other people too, like Harry Reid, or Michael Moore, or Nancy Pelosi. And they can even despise taxes and illegal immigration. But hating Obama is the sina qua non of conservatism in 2013.

And it’s the same on the left. “Liberals” are, pretty much by definition, people who hate conservatives–be they radio conservatives like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh or officeholding conservatives like Ted Cruz. This kind of animosity tells us all we need to know to go into a voting booth and punch a button: we always know who we are going to vote against.

Since nearly all of our political animosity seems now to be directed at people, rather than ideas, the ideological basis for our hatred need be nothing more than simply the most evil things we can imagine attached to the objects of our hatred. Obama is not bad because he advocates a top tax rate five percent higher than we do; he is bad because he is a socialist, or a communist, or a fascist–or (historical definitions aside) all three at once. And, for liberals, conservatives aren’t simply advocates of regulatory reform. They are racists and imbeciles–not to mention anarchists and haters of hungry children. And everybody–and I do mean everybody–is a lot like Hitler.

Political discussions will always degenerate into partisan shouting matches as long as, in our own minds, we are doing battle with big, bad cartoon bears. A solution to this problem might be for all of us to spend some time thinking about what we are for, rather than obsessing about what, and who, we are against. Once we know what we are for, we could, you know, make arguments about those things instead of just yelling at people.

It has been years since I have heard a liberal articulate a clear rationale for federal power–or a conservative make a compelling argument for a pure free market–that did not soon degenerate into sarcasm, anger, hyperbole, and predictable insults. Under certain utopian rhetorical assumptions, people who are for different things, and who come together to argue as friends, could actually learn important things from each other.

But nobody ever taught anybody anything by demeaning and criticizing them. We don’t do this because it is effective; we do it because it is easy. As it turns out, being for things is a lot harder than being against things–and much, much harder than just hating people. Being for things takes time and attention–and serious thought. It requires enough civility to engage other people in ways that might actually change their minds–and enough humility to realize that they might change ours.

Being for things is a lot of work, and arguing civilly about what we are for requires us to suppress millions of years of tribal evolution. But it might actually save our civilization. Knowing where you want to go, and being able to articulate a coherent direction to other people, is a prerequisite to going places. If all we can do is explain what we are against, then the best we can ever hope to get is nothing, and the best place we can ever go is nowhere.