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Like And Dislike In These Polarizing Times

Memo Pad Politics

Like And Dislike In These Polarizing Times

An anti-gun control rally in St. Cloud, Minnesota (Fibonacci Blue via Flickr)

This is for Gigi, who can’t figure out why I don’t like Bill Maher.

Gigi, a reader in West Palm Beach, wrote me last week noting that I agree with the star of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher on most political issues. Yet I have, on previous occasions in this space, expressed distaste for him. “I just don’t understand,” wrote Gigi, “why you profess to dislike someone who is so like minded. It baffles me.”

Me, I don’t see the contradiction. To whatever admittedly imperfect degree you can judge character from a television performance, I find Maher smarmy, self-satisfied, condescending and just plain nasty. Besides which, his use of coarse, sexist vulgarisms to describe Sarah Palin and of an offensive term to describe her special-needs child a few years ago strike me as far beyond the pale, whether as comedy or as political analysis.

That said, Gigi’s letter intrigues me less for its unspoken assumption that we should flock toward people with whom we agree than for the obvious, albeit equally unspoken, corollary: We should avoid those with whom we disagree.

Her bafflement tracks with the findings of a 2014 Pew Research Center study. It found that partisan animosity has increased significantly in the past 20 years, the right moving further right, the left, further left, with the result that people now largely prefer to make their lives in echo chambers where their beliefs reverberate without challenge. Half of all “consistently conservative” respondents told Pew it’s important for them to live in a place where most people think like them. Forty-nine percent of their liberal counterparts said most of their friends share their views.

Indeed, to a great degree, political identity now serves the same function in the public mind as racial identity — namely, as a fundamental and immutable marker of character and worth. To put that another way: Would you want your daughter to marry one? Twenty-three percent of consistent liberals say no, they would not want to see an immediate family member marry a Republican. Thirty percent of consistent conservatives feel the same about the idea of a Democrat in the family.

Look, I get it: we argue — and we have to, and we should — over momentous things. This is not a call to paper over critical political differences with false harmonies of Kumbaya. For the record, I doubt I could share a bus shelter in the rain with such conservative icons as Sean Hannity, Ted Cruz or Ben Carson. Drenching would be much preferable to five minutes with any one of them. But, as with Maher, that represents a judgment less of politics than of perceived character.

In this era, unfortunately, that’s a distinction without a difference. My problem is that I came of age in another era, that I remember the likes of Bob Dole, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, men with whom I could — and did — have sharp political disagreements without feeling obliged to personally dislike them or to disparage their patriotism or decency.

Having been shaped by that era, I persist in believing party does not equal character, nor ideology, identity. I feel no imperative to like you because I agree with you. Or to dislike you because I don’t.

Granted, that is an outdated and minority view, but I hold to it, largely because I can’t see how the alternative solves anything except the need to argue. If a political opponent is defined as unalterably misanthropic and irredeemably evil, then all politics is doomed to fail. Politics, after all, is the art of compromise. You don’t compromise with monsters.

No, you compromise with people like yourself, who have wants, needs and fears like yourself, though they see the world through a different lens. That’s a truth lost to this loud and polarized time. As is this:

Disagreement is not a reason to stop talking. Truth to tell, it’s a reason to start.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Photo: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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  1. Daniel Jones March 16, 2015

    Leonard–you’re right.

  2. bobnstuff March 16, 2015

    100% agree.

  3. Anna March 16, 2015

    The photo says it all: White male supremacists pissed off that ‘their’ country is being run by a black man. They can’t come out and say that so they revert to ‘commie, Kenyan, fascist, etc’ but their real issue is with his race. They were pissed back in the ’70’s when women were ‘taking their jobs’, too. Sad.

    1. Frank KIng March 17, 2015

      When i saw the photo of these men standing about, I felt something was wrong-why weren’t they at work or maybe it was the weekend and they had time to demonstrate. Reading their signs. however, turned my sympathy for them into apathy because the President is not their problem. The problem started with right wing greed and cronyism that has no place for men such at these in their economic plans and pursuits. Their plight started long before Obama and will continue long after he leaves office. They have been duped into believing they can remove all the problems by raging against the President but never realize the problems they face run much deeper than meaningless slogans and hurling vitriol at a man who inherited the same problems they did.

  4. charleo1 March 16, 2015

    As much as I admire you, and usually agree with you Leonard. You need to let go of your Polly Anna dreams of positive political discourse with the extremist Right Wing bigots, Fascists, and corporatists, trying to drag the Country backward, lead it into war, or steal it blind. Or, being anywhere near the same Conservatives as the likes of Patriot, WWII hero, Sen, Bob Dole, or most likely the last Conservative President from the Right this Country will ever see, George H. W. Bush. I mean really! How does one compromise with those ideals, without compromising, strike that, abandoning, one’s position in the ranks of the civilized, vs. the educationally averse, down the rat hole thinking, conspiratorially driven, gun toting, knuckle draggers on the Right? I guess there is the possibility a cop will one day shoot and kill an unarmed White man somewhere in the Country. But the odds so far, are looking very unlikely we’re ever going to have that conversation. So, where is the common ground, or the benefits gained with compromise with the Right? On Travon Martin? On voter suppression? Rolling back the Voting Rights Bill? On minimum wage The value of unions? The relevance to our economy of 400 people controlling as much wealth as the bottom 50% combined. Or the 20% that now own 85% of all the property? And how does the Left get a member of the Republican leadership to attend a Civil Rights ceremony, nowadays? Offer to disband the NAACP, or lower all corporate, and capital gains taxes to zero? What is their compromise position on healthcare? The fact I would prefer my daughter to marry an Independent, or Democrat, has everything to do with what I believe his being a Republican says about him. And what thinks about my daughter, as a woman. And also my desire to see the family gene pool improved, and harnessed to a solid, well rounded education my Grandchildren will have access to.

  5. Allan Richardson March 16, 2015

    There are not many Republicans left in office of whom I could say I disagree with their views but respect their character. The “primary” reason is that their views, at least to the extreme degree they express them, are the RESULT of their bad character: sucking up to the selfish profit motives of a few, and the bigotry and hatred of many more, whether they personally share that bigotry and hatred or not (and expressing it if they do not internally agree with it is a WORSE indictment of their character).

    From what I have read about the late Senator Barry Goldwater, I imagine that if I had been fortunate enough to meet him (later in life, after I outgrew my childish infatuation with his politics), we would have disagreed yet still become friends. But the publicly reported behavior of many of today’s Republicans (and even a few Democrats) makes me doubt whether I could hide my distaste of their reputations as people well enough to have a conversation with them (I would try, of course, since I am not a hateful person).

    I met a Republican politician in the 1990s, when he was putting up his own yard signs and my wife and I were taking a walk, in St. Petersburg. We had a short-to-medium convesation as we walked, and I got the pleasant impression that while we disagreed on some political issues, he was basically a decent man, and not as strident in his views as many of his colleagues. Later he became governor of Florida just as the “Tea party” crowd was taking over his party, and implemented a few progressive initiatives, particularly with regard to voting rights: reducing the long drawn out hearing process for restoring civil rights after serving time for a felony, to a fairly simple form like a tax return, quick meeting with a local parole board official, and you are once more a voter. Not surprisingly, his successor Rick Scott reversed his reforms. To Crist, whether a felon voted for your party or not, if he had served his time, he deserved to vote. To Scott, as to most Republicans today, the statistical fact that most convicted felons who can vote, vote for Democrats, made the injustice of lifetime disenfranchisment just another “tool” in their fight against the “evil” other party. That is the difference between an honorable person with whom I happen to disagree, and a dishonorable person with whom I am OBLIGED by his lack of honor to disagree.

    What happened to him? He was “primaried out” of the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate by Marco Rubio, tried to make it a three way race by reentering the general election as an independent, and was swept away in the Tea Party tide of seniors voting against their own interests while others who were eventually harmed by Tea Party policies didn’t vote because the White House wasn’t on the ballot that year. Four years later, with the White House again not on the ballot, he lost while running as a Democrat, but he still has the potential to be a force in Florida politics, because he is the kind of person you can like and respect, even while disagreeing. And that is why he is no longer a Republican.

    1. johninPCFL March 16, 2015

      I’ve never met Gov. Crist, but remember when he was known as “Chain Gang Charlie”. He was driven sharply right early in his career, but seems to have mellowed recently.
      Of course, that’s traitorous to some.

  6. Frank KIng March 17, 2015

    Just read where a Princeton study has determined that the nation is no longer a representative Democracy but an Oligarchy run by the few for the few. Corporations and the wealthy determine the conduct of governmental affairs and their influence has gained significant and considerable power in the halls of congress and political/economic decision making. “Trickle down” has come to fruition and aided by decisions such as Citizens United, uncontrolled right wing redistricting, denying voters rights this should not come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to the course of events since 2001. America now belongs to the highest bidder and the rest of us can return to the Middle Ages and live as peasants. The American voter has returned to power the same group that created the misery at home we and abroad we endure today and just want more of it. Americans are gluttons for punishment.


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