“Values” Can Hurt Us
Throughout this country’s history, “values” have fostered occasional breakdowns in political debate, as citizens took sides around their ideals and formed irreconcilable tribes. When the abolition of slavery competed with states’ rights, the result was civil war.
While the current division in values is not nearly so severe, tribes are forming nonetheless. In 2005, Austin American-Statesman reporter Bill Bishop found that the number of “landslide counties”—where more than 60 percent of residents voted for one party in presidential elections—had doubled since 1976. A majority of Americans now occupy these ideological bubbles.
Our tribal mindset has destroyed what little faith we had in deliberative debate. Even as individuals, we think so little of argument that we outsource it. We delegate disagreement to professionals, handing off our arguments to lawyers, party hacks, radio hosts, H.R. departments, and bosses. We express our differences sociopathically, through anger and diatribe, extremism and dogmatism. Incivility smolders all around us, on our drives to work, in the supermarket, in the ways employers fire employees, on radio, television, and Capitol Hill.
But as you know, we make a mistake when we apply the label of “argument” to each nasty exchange. Invective betrays a lack of argument—a collapse of faith in persuasion and consensus.
It is no coincidence that red and blue America split apart just when moral issues began to dominate campaigns—not because one side has morals, and the other lacks them, but because values cannot be the sole subject of deliberative argument. Of course, demonstrative language—code grooming and values talk—works to bring an audience together and make it identify with you and your point of view. But eventually a deliberative argument has to get—well, deliberative. Political issues such as stem cell research, abortion and gay marriage deal with The Truth’s black and white, not argument’s gray. When politicians politicize morals and moralize politics, you have no decent argument. You have tribes. End of discussion.
On the other hand, deliberative argument acts as the Great Attractor of politics, the force that brings the extremes into its moderate orbit. The trick is to occupy the commonplace of politics, that Central Park of beliefs, and make it the persuader’s own turf.