Overheated rhetoric and negative partisanship have come to define American politics as of late. Pursuit has devoted sustained reflection on this trend (good examples can be found here, here, and here) due to the fact that the rhetorical shift has crowded out any incentive for policymakers to move beyond name-calling and antagonism.
Overwhelming majorities of Americans agree that the tone of debate in the country has degraded, with a Pew Research study pegging the number of Americans who think political debates have become less respectful, fact-based, and substantive at 85 percent. The survey also indicates President Donald Trump’s penchant for hostile rhetoric as one of many contributing factors, with 55 percent of respondents concluding he has changed the nature of political debates for the worse.
The consequences of this environment is that more energy is devoted to how Democrats and Republicans can — to use today’s popular parlance — “own” their political foes rather than responsibly address mounting public policy concerns.
For instance, take Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) presidential campaign’s latest promotion: a coffee mug for sale on her campaign website and emblazoned with the words “Billionaire Tears.”
Sen. Warren has made this class warfare narrative a cornerstone of her pitch to voters. To hear her telling of the strategy, the senator endeavors to take on a “rigged system” in which wealthy Americans benefit off the labor of lower-income Americans. She proudly claims that her rhetoric is angry, but it should be excused because it is merely a means to an end. When pressed on the demagoguery and antagonism inherent in this dichotomy, Sen. Warren backpedals that she doesn’t “have a beef with billionaires” and is “shocked at the notion that anyone thinks [she is] punitive.”
It is eerily similar to President Trump’s justification that he is a “counter-puncher.” While Sen. Warren claims she wants to drive a serious conversation about income inequality as opposed to constructing an electoral “us versus them” narrative between upper and lower classes, her campaign simultaneously mocks the valid concerns of those who oppose her proposals, missing an opportunity to engage in substantive debate about the real issues about growing divides between classes in America.
In a 2014 lecture, former American Enterprise Institute president Dr. Arthur Brooks conceded that “we are becoming two Americas” when recounting the barriers to economic mobility. Dr. Brooks’ research focuses heavily on mobility for lower-income Americans, stating in a City Journal essay that it is a “lack of economic opportunity that makes us unhappy.” Importantly, he adds the caveat that “arguments against inequality legitimize envy” when steeped in the kind of redistributive policies advocated by Sen. Warren.
Dr. Yuval Levin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, shows how both parties can find innovative ways forward. In congressional testimony, Dr. Levin stated the facts that “inequality has grown, and it has not improved or worsened with rising or falling growth, or tax rates, or spending levels.”
Instead of the typical left/right paradigm that usually undergirds this debate, Dr. Levin suggests more innovative approaches to restoring economic mobility like “broadening the definition of qualified health insurance and allowing greater experimentation in the accreditation of higher education and the uses of student aid.” It is just this kind of innovative thinking that is being crowded out by rhetorical gamesmanship in both parties.
The inequality issue and countless others deserve care and attention rather than demagogic politics. Stoking enmity between fellow Americans will only serve to exacerbate partisan siloing while pushing constructive discussions further out of reach. As The Atlantic’s Andrew Ferguson writes, “contempt is the ingredient that kills personal relationships more swiftly than any other.”
Our political disagreements are deeply nuanced and have as many perspectives as there are people participating in those debates, but we need to make the first step of recognizing the validity of the other side’s perspective if we wish to forge solutions to these problems. To get there, we need leaders in both parties to choose substance over demagoguery.