In her column on this page yesterday, Alicia Washington argued that young liberals — the demographic that helped make this year’s election even close — ought not to mourn the victory of Bush, but rather continue to fight the good fight. “Democrats do not have the time to complain, to whine, to be bitter or to be pessimistic,” she wrote.
Admirably, Ms. Washington is taking her own good advice by writing an inspiring column. But she’s a liberal writing for a liberal audience, and in order to move toward any sort of unity, liberals must discourse with conservatives, even if we’d rather not.
In the election’s wake, we seem to be forgetting that liberalism — a set of political beliefs guided by open-mindedness and tolerance — depends upon good manners. It couldn’t be more obvious that those who lost Tuesday’s battle need to engage in polite discussion with those who think differently. We are lucky to live in a society in which we are not politically persecuted for our political beliefs. We are, however, often socially persecuted for them. The problem lies on both sides of the fence; the left and the right alike need a liberal dose of good, old-fashioned manners.
Let me give an example that is, at face value, just a problem of table manners. At dinner a few days before the election, a friend of mine, whose intelligence and sanity I respect, said that she was planning to vote for Bush. Another girl at the table was, apparently, not a Bush supporter. But instead of engaging my friend in some sort of conversation or argument, the girl flipped out. She exclaimed that she doesn’t understand the psychos who vote for Bush, and that my friend scared her, and she picked up her tray and left the dinner table.
This is a particularly unsettling story because the Bush-hater would have us believe that she, like many liberals, is concerned with social progressivism and with fostering peaceful relations with other nations. Isn’t it obvious, then, that she should want to understand why the girl across the table is different from her?
Let us, though, assume that this girl is atypical; most of us actually like to hear other opinions. We all fall short, though, when it comes to giving them a chance. It’s not much harder to say “I think Bush is a bad president” than it is to say “Bush is Satan,” but the difference goes a long way.
More importantly, you’re not convincing anyone of anything when you insult them. Storming away from the table or tacking up a sign is easy, but ineffective; even from a selfish perspective, it is inappropriate. We all — liberals and conservatives alike — mustn’t run away from conversations, mustn’t cower behind religious rhetoric, when the real solution lies in what we all do so much of anyway: arguing.
Like Alicia Washington in her column, we should all argue our cases clearly, and maybe someday we’ll learn something from our would-be enemies. As soon as Bush’s re-election was a sure thing, The New York Times — which had endorsed Kerry — published an excellent editorial telling liberals to be hopeful and conservatives to hold Bush accountable for everything he does.
Moreover, though, The Times cautioned against what plagued both parties throughout this campaign: “The main emotion seemed to be contempt for the other side and the main divisions over lines of moral belief and fears about personal and national security that no position paper or 30-second spot can bridge.” We weren’t respecting each other, and we have yet to start.
This year, the Democrats definitely missed the boat. The party had every reason to trust that Kerry could have carried a positive campaign with a clear message, but instead we hated Bush and were rude to his supporters. With a clearer focus on the Kerry campaign and less anger about the past, the election returns on Tuesday might have been different.
This attitude, which somewhat eclipsed all that the Democratic party actually stands for, was most potently expressed by Michael Moore, whose “Fahrenheit 9/11” and whose general irreverence only riled up his fan base and probably turned off a lot of swing voters. It’s that creeping rage, hate and resistance to actual discourse that is keeping the American left 2 percent behind these days.
Conservatives, of course, can be arrogant and just as unwilling to listen to opponents. But defeat, unlike victory, is inherently bitter and angry. The challenge for liberals now is to resist the Michael Moore approach, and to be polite and interested — instead of shocked and appalled — when we encounter peers who voted for Bush. Politeness is, after all, the most important social guideline for liberal discourse.
Helen Vera is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.