I am not someone who enjoys home-improvement projects. However, I have done my share of them. One of the things that is likable about a home-improvement project is the demolition. There’s a real satisfaction that comes from knocking walls down. It feels powerful to know you are committed to the project, there is no turning back!
Politics has been like that for me too. In college, I learned more and grew to challenge my previous assumptions. It was like taking a wrecking bar to my old ideas. It was scary and exciting and left me with the need to build again. One of the challenges that came from challenging my own assumptions was: in order to validate my new opinions, I erroneously felt the need to tear down others. I was often critical of other’s political opinions. I would use my newfound sledge hammer of historical information, facts and intellectual reasoning to dismantle someone else’s argument. It felt powerful. A smug superiority crept in, a righteous indignation. I fell into the faulty reasoning that for my position to be stronger I need to destroy your position.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think there are wrongheaded ideas about policy and politics. Some ideas like the racism, tribalism, xenophobia and nationalism are dangerous and have proven disastrous. However, tearing down an idea or belief without a blueprint for rebuilding is not only inefficient, it’s reckless. When you attack someone, and make them feel small, their natural reaction is to entrench and fight back, not to listen and ponder a new approach. Everyone’s perspective has meaning and value to that person—that has to be understood, appreciated and respected. I do think we can “build” a more perfect union. It will, however, require builders not just demolition teams.
The key, to me, is being willing and humble enough to challenge your own assumptions without the need to tear down others. If you change the way you think about an idea because of a conversation with someone, it is typically because you learned new things, saw things in a new way, thought about things you may not have considered. You also felt trusted, respected and heard. You most likely did not change your views because you felt foolish, uniformed or attacked about what you currently believe.
I have built two homes and found the process exciting and fulfilling. I loved to watch skilled workers wield complicated tools and work magic. I remember watching them frame my house in a period of a few days. I was amazed how quickly it all came up. It was also fun to see sheet rock, drywall, trim work, paint crews, etc., all working their craft. It took time for them to hone skills like that. Finishing work, unlike demolition, takes years to learn and requires skill and expertise.
Likewise, in politics. I am tired of those who only work with sledgehammers. We need more builders and fewer demo crews.
I have stopped indulging in demolition media. I don’t read share or like snarky means and over simplified social media fodder. Cheap cable news yelling matches and the non-stop faux outrage of partisans are sledgehammers and aren’t helping anything. I spent more than three years listening to conservative talk radio. It was filled with anger, false dilemmas, unfair and misleading characterizations, stereotypes and all manner of cheap demolition politics. The left has had some of this as well but it has never been as popular or been economically viable (see this 2015 Forbes piece:) . This PBS/POV details the history of talk radio:
Social media is making demolition politics even easier for the left and right. We can now narrow our social media feeds to those who share our assumptions. We like and share that which confirms our point of view, leaving us in a pile of rubble with no plan to rebuild. This 2016 Timothy Lee article is a good snapshot of the problems social media has presented including, “The increasing polarization of news through social media allows liberals and conservatives to live in different versions of reality. And that’s making it harder and harder for our democratic system to function.”
I think each of us have a responsibility as patriots to do our best to build a more perfect union. We need to be informed not enraged, willing to learn, not so quick to find flaws. I am trying to challenge my own assumptions and working to understand those around me. Focusing on issues not politicians or parties is also helpful. I think there are some glimmers of hope on the horizon. This great piece from the Atlantic by James Fallows gives a great depth of understanding to how we got here and how we can come back. One hopeful insight is how cites are working together to create innovative solutions: “Even as national politics induces distrust and despair most polls show rising faith in local governance. For instance, surveys typically find that only a quarter of Americans trust the national government to “do the right thing,” but Gallup polls in 2014 and 2016 found that more than 70 percent trusted their local government to do so. Part of this could be explained by people self-selecting into more-homogeneous communities. But in our experience, it was true even in cities with significant racial and economic diversity, from Greenville to Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino. Mayors serve multiterm stints, launch long-range projects, realize that they’ll encounter in daily life their neighbors who pay the city’s taxes and rely on its services.”
We can work together. We see it in local communities, civic organizations, and schools all the time. We have to choose to be builders and not demolitionists. Like a skilled craftsman, being a builder will take time, patience and practice. We can do it, we must do it! The consequences of living in a demolition only body politic is untenable and we can do better.