Robert Rack spent 29 years mediating civil litigation at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. He is also a cofounder of the Beyond Civility communication project. This column was first published at his blog, "On the Other Hand..."
Dear Old Friend,
We never talk about anything even remotely political anymore, and I’ve been struggling for an explanation.
I don’t know about you, but I miss our old conversations, the way we used to banter about our parties’ differences in debates that were at once humorously predictable and mostly earnest. We probably could have switched sides we knew each other’s positions so well. I don’t think either of us ever expected to change the other’s mind, but in some way I think we kept each other honest.
And that was good, wasn’t it? No matter how long we argued, our differences never interfered with our friendship.
Something has changed. I guess it’s been gradual, but suddenly I’m acutely aware of how long it has been since we’ve candidly shared our political opinions. In fact, we hardly talk at all; I can’t even remember the last time we socialized together.
I’ve been asking myself why and the answer I’m coming up with is disturbing. I’ve decided to be as honest about this as I can and hope you will do the same.
We both know our respective political parties fight like cats and dogs. We’ve never taken that too seriously. But I think your party has changed a lot in recent years. It seems to have gotten more aggressive, more angry and uncompromising.
I’ve assumed it was the product of all the gerrymandering and the incorporation of first the religious right and then the Tea Party. I didn’t think it changed the values or attitudes of the Republicans I knew personally like you. At least I didn’t see that happen.
But something else has changed, and I’m realizing it might be me … the assumptions I’m making about you. I know assumptions are often no more than biases, so I want to confess this first, and then explain why I think it’s happening, and then ask for your help.
So, here’s my confession: I admit I have come to think of you as either cruelly selfish or willfully blind … and I resent you for it. I’m not proud of this. I don’t trust it, and I’ve tried to talk myself out of it. I don’t want to feel this way, but I’m afraid it’s true that I do.
I don’t know when this happened exactly, but I think I know how or why: You seem to still identify comfortably and totally with a political party that has changed dramatically and that I’ve come to see as serving selfish interests and having a seriously destructive impact on our beloved country.
Remember how we used to argue about how our taxes should be spent, and complain about how frustratingly bureaucratic government was, and debate the best approach to providing for the poor? Well, now your party seems to see taxes as intrinsically bad under any circumstances, an infringement on our personal property rights and our liberty.
It sees government as inherently oppressive, more infringement on our personal liberty. And it calls all government or tax-based programs that assist the needy a burden on the budget to be reduced if not eliminated.
Yes, I know all the arguments and rationales behind these positions. But I always thought you personally still recognized the importance of taxes to support a safe, healthy and benevolent society, that you respected the role of government as our way of collectively choosing, supporting, and enforcing our social values, and that you agreed that of course we, who have an abundance of resources, would share with those who don’t, that we are all our brothers’ keepers.
I think you, the person, still do. I watch you with your family and your church, with your business associate, and I see your kindness and generosity. But you, the loyal Republican, are looking quite different to me now, especially since this last election.
Maybe conservatives are saying the same thing about liberals, but as I see it, your party has turned mean. It’s like someone convinced your group that conservatives were under attack by godless socialists determined to bring decay and destruction to the country.
It’s interesting how if you trace the sources of these ideas you find a handful of extremely wealthy individuals with strong Libertarian values who have funded countless conservative think tanks and “grass roots” organizations to mount a desperate fight against liberals like me who simply have slightly different expressions of patriotism and slightly different social priorities.
They’ve rebranded laissez faire capitalism, their preferred and highly self-serving economic system, as a national religion and mounted a crusade to protect it. I don’t really blame you for that, we’ve all bought into that brand to some extent.
And now, with the surprise election of Donald Trump, who is convincing people that America’s enemies are immigrants, “urban elites,” and the free press, and Steve Bannon, whose nearly messianic mission is that the world should be run by America and that America should be run by white Christians, an awkward, unholy alliance is being exploited by your party and Trump’s and Bannon’s. That alliance could break up sooner than later, but it has the potential to set the American experiment, and the extraordinary success that experiment has brought, back a century or more.
I hope you think this is an exaggeration. I don’t want to believe you see what I see and are choosing sides. I’m very torn. While I want to reach out to you as a friend, to talk and to seek understanding, I also see you as part of a force I am increasingly convinced I’m at war with.
What I ask of you, need from you, is to acknowledge what your party is doing and justify or oppose it. I’m willing to listen, hungry to listen, even hoping to be wrong, but we would have to start with real facts, not alternative ones.
Would you be willing to do that?
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