With the talks already ongoing to try and avert a government shutdown in the face of another debt ceiling crisis, I have decided to look at the broader question of whether it is genuinely possible to have an actual dialogue, on any subject, given the current political atmosphere. The first item in this conversation is to determine what dialogue actually is. Despite many different definitions that come to mind, and a lot of searching, I have happened upon a quote that seems to make the most sense. In the book On Heaven and Earth then Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, in his introduction has this to say on the idea of dialogue:
"Dialogue is born of a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals. Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation. To dialogue, one must know how to lower the defenses, to open the door to one's home and to offer warmth.
"There are many barriers in everyday life that impede dialogue: misinformation, gossip, prejudices, defamation, and slander. All of these realities make up a certain cultural sensationalism that drowns out any possibility of openness to others. Thus dialogue and encounter falter."
His idea has all the elements necessary for a genuine dialogue. Respect, encouragement, an open mind, and most importantly a generosity of spirit. It also points out where dialogue will fail. I can't think of a more inclusive, and correct, description of what dialogue is.
But do we have that today, or, better yet, is it possible in the current political climate? Sadly, I don't think so. Let's look at each of the elements in turn.
Respect. Everyday we see on the news, press filings, statements by politicians, and also the public at large, castigating anyone with a different point of view. The subtle, and not so subtle, biting sarcasm when such terms as "the other side of the aisle", the "liberals", the "conservatives", the "Far Right" or "Far Left" and many others show how little respect is actually given, and received, in the political arena. When we hear on the floor of the House of Representatives "My Good Friend", or on the floor of the Senate "The Distinguished Senator" it is difficult not to cringe and realize that the traditional platitudes have become nothing more than just platitudes as opposed to a genuine respect.
Encouragement. I almost have to laugh at the idea of encouragement in the political world today. At times we hear imploring statements for those on the other side of the aisle, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, to offer up ideas or proposals. Yet the moment anyone does, the processes are in place to make it nearly impossible for the minority to have a seat at the table, especially in the House of Representatives, in shaping the ultimate legislative product. I must in candor admit that the minority is physically at the table, but in terms of overall contribution it is negligible.
An Open Mind. Can anyone honestly say that our Congressmen and Senators have open minds? How often do we hear the term Dead On Arrival when a proposal, budget, amendment, or any idea from the other side comes to the public attention? In many ways it is very disheartening. Look at the Affordable Care Act as a good example. Arguably there is much to oppose in the bill that was signed into law, on either side, but what have we seen thus far? Either total capitulation on the whole thing, or else. Every once in a while we see some movement on making improvements in increments, but not enough to make something out of a staggeringly massive piece of misunderstood legislation (misunderstood in the sense that neither side truly understands all aspects of it). When a rule change is being proposed at the Agency level we hear a lot of anger and vitriol, but little in the way of actual constructive options to deal with the problems that the new rules are attempting to deal with. So frankly, there is not much of an open mind in the current day on the political scene.
Generosity of Spirit. This is not for me a religious, spiritual term of reference, though in another setting I would acknowledge it as such. Rather this is in reference to the idea that it is possible to disagree with someone, yet at the same time be friends with them. Former President Ford was once asked what the main difference was between the House when he was Minority Leader in the late 1960's and early 1970's and now. He responded by saying that there was now a lack of civility. In the past everyone respected that the people of the other party had the same basic goal in mind, just different ideas on how to achieve it. Thus they could argue, debate, and ultimately compromise during the day, and then in the evening link arm in arm and have a nice dinner and be the best of friends. Even the House and Senate dining rooms, he mentioned once, were different in that now members of opposing parties rarely sat together having a meal there. Vice-President Biden also mentioned similar observations. All in all I must say that there is a lack of generosity of spirit at play in the political arena and the halls of the legislature.
Cardinal Bergoglio mentioned the barriers to dialogue, and I think it goes without saying that we see all of them everyday whether in the various comments on the internet by the readers of articles and stories, the interviews or public statements of our politicians of either party, or even in the simple fact that we see members of both major parties making patently absurd or disrespectful statements about legislative or policy proposals on a regular basis. Nothing more really needs to be said to understand that the barriers are alive and well today.
Dialogue, genuine dialogue, is not really possible as things now stand. There are some efforts, such as by the group No Labels, to break down the barriers to dialogue, but nothing is making a serious dent as yet. Governor Jindal of Louisiana said a while back at a Conservative political conference that in order to move ahead the Republicans needed to begin to get away from the venomous idea that the other side is somehow the enemy. The other side needs to be understood to have the same love of country and desire to improve it as the Republican party does. They just have a different approach. The same could be said for the Democratic Party and what it needs to do. Only then will we see a genuine dialogue develop, and positive policy proposals that benefit the most people possible become enacted. We should take Cardinal Bergoglio's comment about what dialogue is to heart and begin to truly have a political debate, and political system, that is working for positive ends, and not narrow ideologically defined interests.