We have a truism in the dispute resolution field: in any protracted disputes, odds are, both sides are right. How is this possible? Usually people presume that the positions of people in a dispute are contradictory, so if one side “wins” the other must lose. But in reality, for most protracted disputes, each side focuses on the issues where they feel they are right, and they ignore the other issues where they may be on thinner ice. So if you’re mad that I let the dog outside and he dug up the tulips, you focus on the fact that I didn’t lock the screen door on the porch like we agreed I would. But I’m mad that you still haven’t taken the dog to the puppy class training to stop him from digging in the garden. Are you right that I didn’t lock the screen door? Yes. Am I right that you never followed through on the puppy class? Yes. But we can argue all night about it, each focusing on the part we’re right about, and ignoring the part we’re wrong about. This let’s us feel like we’re in the right and avoids a real resolution.
I see this in our current political dialogue every day. Debates on cable news become shouting fests where one side loudly trumpets the things they’re right about, while the other side ignores those comments and trumpets the points that advantage their perspective. Each side thinks: I’m right about the points I’m making, so I’m winning. The viewers of the debate (influenced by their own implicit bias) hear the person advancing the facts they are sympathetic to and conclude: “I knew it. I’m right. Man, the other side got schooled.” But the “facts” just fly by each other — they never connect. They aren’t mutually contradictory, so the debaters never engage on the substantive issues.
Take the false dichotomy of liberal and conservative politics. A quick Google search tells me, “Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense. Conservatives believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals.” Liberals, in contrast, “…believe in governmental action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all, and that it is the duty of the State to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Liberals believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need, and that people are basically good.”
So I’ve been told my whole life that, based on my beliefs, I’m a liberal. I do seem to vote Democratic in every election. But when presented with this list (e.g. “personal responsibility, free markets, individual liberty, American values, a strong defense”) I find it hard to disagree with any of it. I believe people need to take responsibility for themselves, that free market approaches are better than markets loaded up with tariffs and closed borders, individual liberty needs to be defended, American values (kind of a fuzzy concept, but I’ll presume the good ones) are worthy of promotion and adherence, and we have to have a strong national defense. Wait, am I a conservative? Well, no, because I also believe the government should work to ensure equality and equal opportunity, that government should help citizens when they’re in need, that civil liberties should be protected, and that government should work to alleviate the suffering of its citizens whenever possible. I definitely believe that people are basically good.
How can I believe all these things at the same time? Because they’re all true. Sure, we can narrowly define the dichotomy as “conservatives think government is good, liberals think government is bad.” But that’s a ridiculous oversimplification. I think (as I believe most Americans think) that government is good in some circumstances and bad in others. As is true in every area of life, the secret is in finding the balance. There are times when government needs to intervene (e.g. the financial crisis) and times when government needs to stay out (e.g. to let people live their lives as they like, so long as their choices don’t harm anyone).
The core tenets of conservatism are right. As are the core tenets of liberalism. The problem is that the way we debate them makes a false presumption about their mutual exclusivity. The truly important decision is in how we balance competing values in the choices we make. All our policies are dials, not on-off switches. Our debates should be about what levels we should set the dials to, not whether the switches should be on or off. This should be a component of a new kind of public deliberation, one that gets us past the positional theatrics and closer to consensus building and wisdom. Maybe we could call it eDeliberation.