The Virtues of Pluralism in America

INTRODUCTION

2016 was a toxic year for politics. According to a Public Religion Research Institute study, 13% of people blocked/unfriended/stopped following someone on social media because of a politics post after the election.

I experienced 2016 in San Francisco, a county in which Hillary Clinton won an astounding 85% of the vote, as well as 79% in neighboring Marin. In the day of and weeks after the election, coworkers, baristas, and random passers-by made no effort to hide their disdain for not only Donald Trump but also those who would dare to vote for him.

I tried to escape the morass on election night by attending my beer/skeeball league. Adorned in a Browns t-shirt (we were, after all, the “Skeeveland Browns”), I was subjected to constant ridicule for living in a state that swung the election to Trump. I had numerous conversations forced upon me where the person told me that Ohioans were either racist, stupid, or both for voting for the man. My social media feed echoed this sentiment, and now my current state of residence is actually threatening to secede, largely because America picked a president that some of its voters don’t like.

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Such dismissiveness of our political opponents is not just a California affliction. As my good friend Ryan recounted in his excellent, must-read piece, less than a year ago we encountered Brooklyn bar-goers who were thrilled when the conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia died, and who expressed shock at the fact that we wouldn’t take a celebratory shot with them.

I’ve lived in blue states for my entire adult life, but I suspect this is equally true of diehard red states as well. It’s a terrible, historically ignorant way of conducting ourselves as citizens of a republic. Instead of assuming the worst about our political opposites, I urge readers to comprehend the importance of and espouse the virtue of pluralism, whereby we recognize the strengths of others’ arguments and don’t immediately dismiss the views of people we disagree with.

TOO BIG NOT TO FAIL

What we are seeing today would resonate with “Brutus”, one of the primary authors of the “anti-Federalist” papers that argued against ratifying the Constitution. In his first essay, Brutus noted that the United States was too large of a territory to thrive as one republic. He cited, among other reasons: a population of many diverse interests, too much separation between legislators and their constituents, and the inability of the common people to control what would certainly become a powerful bureaucracy and military. Successful republics were more like those of Greece: small city-states that were largely ethnically and culturally uniform. Of course, US territory and population have expanded far beyond what most back then thought possible, thus exacerbating the problem Brutus described.

James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 provided compelling reasons for why a republic could work in America, primarily that having a larger number of voters choosing each legislator would lessen the odds of electing a tyrant…what quants might call “the wisdom of the crowds”. But as Madison, Franklin, and other Federalists knew, even a large number of voters in a republic still could be dangerous if they didn’t take seriously their immense responsibility.

Part of that responsibility is self-educating; staying informed about politics and current affairs to hold leaders responsible. But another, equally important virtue is coexisting with people whose values are, by nature of the large geography and population America covers, quite different from us. This is where we have failed.

THE LIMITS OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING

The best professor I had in college, John Karaagac, happened to assign the best book I read in college, Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence. As an advertising professional, the content of what they taught me wasn’t as important as how they taught it.

In his various lectures about international relations and US foreign policy, Karaagac was forthcoming with his own views; he didn’t try to peddle himself as neutral. He had his biases and bluntly called us out on our own. (“Brian RUDDOCK, ever the REALIST” he’d shout at me in front of the class.) As Karaagac and Mead explained, we all see things through ideological lenses which have inherent strengths and weaknesses.

At times, certain frameworks are better than others. But for most complex problems, the best result will be achieved by analyzing things from multiple perspectives. Every ideology has blind spots; problems that our preferred line of thinking may underestimate, misinterpret, or provide incorrect solutions for. Ideologies stress certain factors over others; even when confronted with the same historical facts, they draw different conclusions, all of which may be logically viable.

Even Jefferson himself, the namesake of a “peace by example, not invasion” foreign policy theory, often applied aggressive “Hamiltonian” stratagems as president. Both Mead and Karaagac taught that America likely wouldn’t have survived its infancy if Jefferson hadn’t considered the strengths of others’ world-views and occasionally acted according to their dictates.

Anecdotally, consider: how many times have you been wrong about something in your life, even something that you were absolutely certain of? Some of these instances were probably because of randomness/variance, but many others were probably because of the inherent “blind spots” of your ideology and/or fact base.

PLURALISM AS A TOOL FOR THE CITIZENRY

Economist Bryan Caplan coined the term “ideological Turing test”: if you’re truly well-informed, you should be able to espouse political opponents’ arguments just as convincingly as they could their own. This is a high bar, but it is worth aiming for.

Understanding others’ views will, as discussed, likely help us make more informed voting choices and policy decisions. It will also make you better at arguing in favor of your own views; as any former debater knows, you can’t beat the opposition without fully comprehending their arguments.

But more importantly, embracing pluralism allows us to respect the dignity of those coworkers, those baristas, those passers-by who may not vote for the same candidates we do. It de-escalates political arguments from a personal/emotional arena into a more logical, argument-based one. At a fundamental level, it allows us to treat other people as the deserving human beings that they are.

CONCLUSION

Just as America wouldn’t be a superpower without the technical brilliance of Silicon Valley and its white-collar liberals, it also wouldn’t be able to defend itself without the South’s military might and blue-collar conservatives. Paraphrasing Mead, America is a car, and its various factions are all crucial parts. Take away the engine and we go nowhere; remove the steering wheel and we veer out of control. Each voter bloc has its purpose and its contributions.

I’m a card-carrying libertarian who believes in minimal government interference in markets or minds. But I freely admit that sticking to those principles in the 1940s would have resulted in us speaking German, and that removing the welfare state in our future of near-total job automation is probably a very bad idea. There are also a number of issues I feel strongly about but know I could easily be wrong on. Consider: what are your blind spots? What questions can your preferred ideology not sufficiently answer? If you don’t know, read up on smart people from the other side and try again.

Whatever your feelings, you live in a country of over 325 million other individuals. Even a plurality of them will often disagree with you on your most deeply-held beliefs. That does not make them bad people. It does not make them unintelligent. And without them, America would not be the prosperous nation that it is.

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