You might not know it, but to win a policy argument, you have to argue that the opposition has a lack of moral sense. You may well make your opposition seem despicable, but you’ll be able to acquire more votes and support for your own position. Then you’ll win—or, at least, that’s what our modern politics suggest.
Of course, you’ll have solved nothing in the process.
To say that a political opponent is evil, as folks like President Trump often do, is to justify a moral crusade against that person. Because not only are they wrong in their stance on a particular policy — they’re malevolent. This mentality also suggests that the individual with whom you disagree shouldn’t be able to contribute to the public discourse and ought not be respected. There is a moral standard one must meet to be taken seriously.
For example, look at the language used by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the healthcare debate: “Our current health care system is a moral outrage. We must make health care a right through Medicare for all.”
A moral outrage. That is, to suggest that private healthcare may be a better policy solution to providing healthcare in the United States is the antithesis to morality. This makes those who advocate for such a policy complicit in evil.
To demonstrate how this thinking is flawed, consider the climate change debate. It is entirely possible that there are two people who believe taking care of the environment is necessary and, in fact, a moral good, yet hold two distinct policy positions for achieving those ends.
Person A might believe the best way to help the environment is to use the free market to create sustainable solutions and motivate innovative enterprises that support, say, nuclear energy to move away from fossil fuels.
Person B, however, might believe that government intervention is the best way to help the environment and wants to raise taxes so that proper regulations may be implemented to safeguard against intrusive, uncaring industrial companies.
The people in this scenario aren’t moral opponents at all. In fact, they hold positions that agree on what is morally good — that is, protecting the environment. This is the apparently difficult truth many of our modern political leaders fail to grasp.
What’s more, believing your opponent to be evil often leads to justifying one’s own bad behavior to prevent the perceived “worse” behavior. We cannot allow ourselves to resort to such a crude worldview, where protecting the ‘lesser’ evil is the foundation for bad policy.
Of course, it would be absurd to argue that political decisions have no moral consequences whatsoever. It is entirely possible that a certain policy holds greater moral weight than others. However, unless there is an agreed upon set of ethics presupposed by everyone, dismissing political opponents on purely moral grounds is absurd. That is to say, unless everyone in the political game was attuned to value precisely the same thing in the same way, such that everyone knew about this standard and agreed to it, falling back on moral assault is a weak and usually evidenceless claim. Even disagreements on what is of greater moral significance does not necessitate malevolence.
So, what’s the solution? Give political opponents the benefit of the doubt.
Realize that it may not be from Hitler-esque motivations that an individual believes in lowering taxes, or that Trotzky isn’t behind the March for Our Lives Demonstrations. Dismiss the rhetoric about fighting an evil. It might be true that socialism is morally bankrupt, but the socialist might not be. It is imperative that we operate under a principle of charity in political debates. We should not be entering any political discussions with the assumption that those across the aisle are motivated by bad intentions or hatred. To do this is to preemptively give up on the conversation. If we are to take this divide, “politics of hate”-torn America seriously, we need to take our political opponents seriously. This starts with the task of not assuming policy disagreements indicate moral depravity.
We ought to be taking every opportunity to bridge the gap with those across the aisle. It begins by viewing your political opponents in good faith, not as sinners.
Anthony DiMauro is a Young Voices contributor based in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMDiMauro.