Is anybody listening?
Conservatives may be high on many things, but dialogue and compromise are not among them
By Barry Gordon 07/15/2010
Recently I was pleased to be part of an exercise in what has come to be known as “deliberative democracy.” The idea is that ordinary people from all walks of life and differing ideologies could come together and, given enough nonpartisan and unbiased information, could seek a common solution to a difficult problem. In this case, the problem was how to cut the projected federal deficit in half by 2025. We looked at a whole range of options — increasing taxes, cutting government programs and initiating major deductions. We also looked at total reform of the tax code. The results are to be compiled and sent to opinion leaders in Washington, such as the president’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission and appropriate committees in Congress. That way, they might have a sense of Americans’ thoughts on the subject.
America Speaks, the national sponsor of the event, brought together more than 3,000 people in dozens of sites across the country (including two here in Pasadena) to take part in this amazing experiment. At the end of a pretty long day of dialogue, a preliminary report was issued that included a demographic breakdown of the national participants.
America Speaks did its best to make this a truly bipartisan event. Its advisory committee, which actually put together the materials on the budget, possessed work experiences ranging from the Center for American Progress to the Heritage Foundation. And they engaged in a massive effort to ensure that the participants reflected the demographic and ideological diversity of the country. Yet, three groups were woefully underrepresented: young people, Latinos and … wait for it … conservatives (by the way, self-described moderates were also underrepresented). Only 20 percent of the participants described themselves as conservative, compared to 42 percent of Americans who self-describe as conservative or very conservative, according to a June Gallup poll.
Why? After all, isn’t the reduction of the deficit their issue? Aren’t they always complaining about too much government spending? Here was their chance to reform that tax code, cut all those government agencies and show the corrupt idiots in Washington how to get it done, right? So why didn’t they show up in greater numbers?
I think I know why. The right wing isn’t high on debate, dialogue and seeking common ground. This seems evident from the Tea Partiers’ behavior at congressional town hall meetings, in which shouting down those who disagree is standard operating procedure. It’s also evident from the “my way or the highway” approach taken by most Republican legislators in Washington and Sacramento, even when confronting a significant majority on the other side. The exercise we engaged in required a true attempt at compromise; a recognition that tough choices had to be made that probably would not make anyone terribly happy. But that’s not their game.
When I use the term “conservative” here, I’m not talking about the Bob Bennetts and Judd Greggs, men of principle who have at least made significant attempts to deal with others from across the aisle. I’m talking about that much larger group who believe in the unerring rightness of their own ideologically driven rigidity.
These guys — and a few gals — are not good listeners. Why listen when you know all the answers already? This attitude is even reflected in some of the comments I’ve received since I started writing this column. I am told that I know nothing and I am being constantly reminded of what the Founding Fathers thought, even though I’ve offered specific quotes from those same Founding Fathers to make my points. Some people don’t even want to accept the truth when it’s literally staring at them in black and white.
Liberals don’t pose a significant threat to these folks, largely because we are almost always willing to acknowledge that we may be wrong. We are always ready for facts — those pesky little things — to disprove our theories and force us to rethink our positions. Show us that welfare in certain forms provides a disincentive for people to work and we’ll shift our thinking, as President Bill Clinton did. Prove to us that what we thought was an ill-considered surge of troops in Iraq might actually have a positive effect on the war (which we never should have fought in the first place) and we’ll acknowledge it, as President Barack Obama did.
And give us a choice between raising taxes and letting Social Security go bankrupt, and we’ll make the tough choice and support the tax increase — one of the biggest in our history — as President … oh, wait, that was Ronald Reagan. How did he get into this list? Maybe because unlike today’s conservatives, Reagan was a listener and was willing to recognize when reality collided with ideology. As Rachel Maddow pointed out in a recent show, he also increased the size of government, raised corporate taxes, and talked about a world free of nuclear weapons. He was, as Maddow said, “complex.”
Nevertheless, Reagan is hailed as the icon of the modern, non-listening, conservative movement. If you’re a conservative and you’re reading this, ask yourself this question: Given the truth, rather than the myth, of the Reagan presidency, could this conservative god have survived a Republican primary in the year 2010? You might ask Bob Bennett.
Barry Gordon teaches political science at Cal State LA and is the co-host of “City Beat” on KPAS. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.