The 18th century English author Alexander Pope coined the phrase “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
Those who wish to restore a sense of civility in our political discussion may not be looking for divine intervention, but they are at least looking for common sense and high standards.
Yet, misrepresentations make the road to common sense a stony one. Take the current misuse of “socialism,” for example.
The dictionary definition and the one which economists use refers to government ownership of the means of production, such as the British nationalization of the coal mines at the end of World War II. You would think anyone referring to “socialism” in public debate would define what industries the speaker wanted to nationalize.
But conservatives use a much different definition. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held earlier this year outside Washington, D.C., Vice President Pence said to a Republican crowd that the choice in the next election is “between freedom and socialism, between personal responsibility and government dependence.”
So, for the vice president, “socialism” is a label shorn of all economic meaning. In fact, we see in this example of the conservative lexicon, “socialism” juxtaposed with “freedom.” Thus, Conservatives argue that anything that makes you dependent is socialism. If you hope your car insurance will pay for that accident, you are dependent on the insurance company and therefore are a socialist.
Basically, conservatives want you to believe any benefit from any source makes you dependent. Other socialist benefits would include your roads, schools, air traffic safety, clean air and water, safe food and drugs or anything else done for the common good. That would include payments to farmers crippled by China’s response to the administration’s tariffs.
In this year’s campaign mailings, Republican candidates largely ignored running on programs that solved community problems, such as community health or broadband for students and businesses or stopping the decreased funding of our schools. What they supported was “freedom.” Apparently, the fewer goods and services the community provides for its members, the freer they are. Does this mean a single mother with starving children due to the administration’s cut back in food stamps has more freedom than the rich family whose tax breaks fund a second vacation this year?
We are surrounded by examples of misrepresentation and labeling, which make our national conversation rocky.
The National Republican Committee, its secretive PACs and wealthy corporate backers have decided to make a major financial effort to oppose Representative Spanberger here in the 7th Congressional District. The main label they apply to her seems to be “liberal.” How embarrassing for her, “liberal” is such a step down from “socialist.” The RNC adjustment in labeling vocabulary is because she has conducted herself with modesty and moderation. She has held town halls in all ten counties in the district. She makes herself and her staff available to the public—Republicans, independents and Democrats alike. Eighty percent of the bills she has supported are bipartisan. She said she would not vote for Nancy Pelosi for House speaker, and she did not. Nevertheless, the misrepresentation and labeling don’t end.
How do we handle these misrepresentations which make our conversations so toxic at the Thanksgiving table?
Some defensively say, “Well, everyone does it. Get over it.” That is an unacceptable response. What that argument means is that you lack independent standards; you are tying your standards to the standards of others.
If freedom, civility and conformity with reality is your goal, the characteristics required are high standards, informed knowledge of the issues and judgement.