When Aristotle said that “man is a political animal” he meant that politics is an inherent part of the human experience. He didn’t mean to imply that political men should behave like animals. Sometimes we lose sight of that and politics gets nasty.
Politics is the civil discussion about the kind of people we want to be and the kind of nation we want to live in. The key word is civil. Many people get turned off of politics because of the shouting, righteousness, and exclusivity that seems rampant on talk radio and television. Make no mistake. Partisanship is not a sin. It’s okay to believe the other side is wrong. That said, it’s not okay to be nasty about it. Trying to convince people to think your way works much better if you treat them with kindness and respect. Empathy is as much the skill of a good politician as rhetoric.
The conflict between liberals and conservatives stems mainly from the disparate ways in which they view the world – in terms of both the problems and the solutions. As in all facets of life, a healthy understanding of your opponent’s worldview is a good debate strategy and it facilitates civil discourse. To that end, I propose a national program requiring all 535 members of Congress to read the following two books:
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – If you want to understand the dangers of a free market, follow the Joad family to California on their quest for work. That’s right, work. They aren’t looking for gold, oil, or fame on the Sunset Strip. They want honest work so they can put food on the table. The problem is that corporate agribusiness has beaten them to California. Facing a glut of labor, a shortage of work, and unregulated enterprise, the Joads are forced to work for pennies on the dollar. They face starvation, depression, and destitution. The only relief they find is in a government camp, where the Joad family works to pay back what is given to them. They don’t take charity. They have too much dignity.
It’s not a happy story, and it lacks a happy ending, but the Grapes of Wrath shows what can happen to good people in a system that cares about profits more than people. I found myself pulling for the Joads, and wondering what could be done for these hard-working, salt-of-the-Earth folks who need a little help.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – If you want to understand the dangers of social planning and excess regulation, Rand’s your man, or woman in this case. A favorite of libertarians and free market advocates, Atlas Shrugged is the story of hardworking entrepreneurs whose success makes them the target of jealous bureaucrats. In order to bankroll their policy agenda, the government intellectual class leaches off the hard-work and success of people who actually produce something – railroads, copper, or steel. When government regulations and oversight get so ridiculous that the captains of industry start to resist, the government threatens to nationalize their industries. The liberal intelligentsia quickly realizes they don’t know the first thing about business, and actually try to compel the owners by law to stay on the job so the companies will remain productive. The business owners fight back in an overt, deliberate manner.
Atlas Shrugged reads more like an adventure novel at times, complete with mysterious figures, intrigue, and espionage. It has a bitter-sweet and fanciful ending. The novel illustrates that wealth is not a sin, and the rich are not our enemies. To the contrary, we need rich people if we’re going to pay for all those social programs to help the Joads. But taking from one person to give to another is tricky business and can easily turn into legalized plunder if not checked.
Psychologists say that reading great works of literature can make one more empathetic to others, so here’s the assignment. All members of Congress should read both of the books described above in their entirety.* Given their length, that should take a while. Once they’re done reading, they should each write a ten-page essay comparing and contrasting liberalism versus conservatism and explaining the importance of civil discourse. Hopefully they’ll realize that civility matters, even when the other side is wrong. Without it, we become arrogant and callous, like the thugs that antagonize the Joads, or the bureaucrats that come after Hank.
I don’t want to live in an American that looks like either of those extremes. I want to live in an America that remains civil, even when we fight for what we believe in.
*I’ve checked the prices of these books on Amazon. We can get both books for a total of $25.58, costing us taxpayers $13,685.30 total to tie up at least an entire semester of the Congressional calendar. For those of us who believe in limited government, that’s a real steal.