To casual observers of the great debates in our country, it appears as though America is mere moments away from total collapse. Politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are calling for a “political revolution” to deliver “fundamental change.” President Trump warns his supporters that Democrats “want to destroy [them] and they want to destroy our country as we know it.” If these statements are to be any guide, America is in dire peril should the wrong side prove victorious in the struggle for control of our government.
The problem with contemporary bipartisan fears of the nation’s impending destruction is not only that it is untrue, but the lack of forgiveness this sort of mindset breeds is a root cause of why our politics appears so paralyzed.
Before we go further, we need to define what is (and what is not) meant by forgiveness. According to political theorist Hannah Arendt, forgiving “is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”
In other words, forgiveness is a way of freeing ourselves from being automatically locked into an ever-escalating cycle of attacks and counter-attacks by approaching our political opposites in good faith after a setback. We can then strategize and craft counterarguments that fit the circumstance in a much more constructive way.
Best of all, the likelihood for a desirable result increases if opponents are treated with this fusion of vigor and forgiveness.
Late last year, Congress passed the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill known as the FIRST STEP Act. Both sides of the debate used their legislative powers to advance their agenda and even took to mass media to publicly make their cases. Neither side lacked conviction that they were on the right side of the issue, but they were able to forgive one another after a hard-fought effort. Forgiveness clears the way forward, and the alternative of treating political opposites with callousness makes securing desired reforms harder instead of easier.
Forgiveness is given a bad rap in our current political culture because it is interpreted as weakness in a time where all disagreements are part of a larger zero-sum right versus left fight. Indeed, this growing trend is easy to spot. Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently characterized the Democratic Party’s message heading into 2020 as “We’ve got the power; soon we’ll have all the guns and we’re coming for your stuff.”
Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-CA) spoke in eerily similar terms, stating to laughter and applause from her supporters that “there is so much to fight for and so much at stake, and we can’t afford to be lovely — and then lose.”
There can be no compromise if neither side can forgive. Just look at health care. When Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proclaimed that “people will die” during the Republican effort at health care reform, the stakes were set so high that there could not possibly be a solution that would see the two sides negotiate in any meaningful way. After all, why would you negotiate with would-be murderers? Nearly two years later, neither side is willing to forgive the escalation of the other even as the cost of health care remains a top issue for voters.
Forgiveness is a large part of why people of strong political conviction are successful. It is such a critical political virtue because it allows for greater possibility and dynamism in addressing complex problems. Without it, political actors are locked into predetermined narratives dictated by how the other side responds. As John Hart puts it, “preaching to the choir is easy. Making converts takes work.”
If forgiveness was merely about pushing inoffensive middle-way policy prescriptions in response to deeply held beliefs out of fear of appearing impolite, forgiveness’s critics would have a much more convincing case. The rub is that none of this is expected to practice forgiveness in politics, but it is a prerequisite for our system to function as intended.
President Abraham Lincoln warned that if the United States were truly to face ruin, it “must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Despite the rhetoric we hear from political leaders and commentators of our day, we are far from the political climate in which Lincoln spoke those words. All the same, younger generations should take the time to carefully reflect upon them as we gain greater political power.
The predictable, unproductive cycles of win-at-all-costs politics are leaving countless issues unaddressed. We should use our current climate as a teachable moment to take advantage of every opportunity to better practice forgiveness in our own lives if we want to forge real reform going forward.