When We Disagree
How the distance between us is undermining democracy.
Disagreement is good for democracy and can be a sign of health. Free people acting from their deep commitments, interests and identities are bound to come to different conclusions about what our political priorities should be and what the public good requires. Disagreements are a sign of healthy pluralism in society. If we express and pursue differences of opinion with civility and mutual concern, they enrich our political processes. They bring genuinely new ideas and correctives to our all-too-human tendency to get stuck in our own perspectives.
Canadian Election 2019
Political disagreements are bound to get heated because the stakes of decision-making are real. Whether or not climate change is anthropogenic and whether a significant price on carbon is the best way to deal with it are hugely important issues and the stakes of getting them right are enormous. Whether reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and settlers requires only offering economic opportunity or system-wide decolonization is an existential issue for Canada; it’s about our very existence and identity as a country. Healthy disagreement doesn’t have to be “mild” or “nice” but the heat of public contestation should, when things go rightly, generate the light of an enriched understanding and concern for the common good and the good of “the least of these.” In other words, dissention – our tendency to form groups of like-minded people to push for our view of a better world – should reflect authentic, substantial and reasoned differences of opinion.
At the time of writing, this election has, on the whole, not reflected this healthy pluralism. We have a situation where (with a few exceptions) the three largest parties all offer variations on the same theme: “the middle class can’t get ahead, and we’re the party to make life more affordable so that they can.” That is, they accept a social vision whereby “we” (middle class people) should always be getting more income, more stuff and more autonomy, since our greatest collective problem is our alleged failure to do so. Where there are differences – in most cases about which regime of tax cuts or social spending will help “us” “get ahead” – these are left largely undiscussed with any degree of care except by policy wonks on Twitter. Even discussion about transcendent existential issues like climate change tend to get framed in terms of “what will this cost and are we willing to pay?”
An American comparison
This basic consensus about social vision does not mean that we are living in a time of political peace and civility. Rather, even while we agree more with each other, we are pulling further away from each other into hostile camps. American political scientist Lilliana Mason, in her data-rich book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became our Identity, documents how Americans’ social lives have become increasingly sorted by their partisan loyalties. More and more, Democrats not only side with Democrats in elections but marry, hang out socially and even go to church with them, to the exclusion of Republicans (and vice versa). Forty years ago, most Republicans would not have minded if their child announced their intention to marry a Democrat but would have been very concerned if they married someone of a different faith. Now, those concerns are reversed. Party-political identity has become primary identity.
This research is based on the American experience and somewhat reflects their two-party system. However, the same sort of thing is happening in Canada: Liberals don’t marry or hang out with Conservatives (and vice versa) as much as they did in past generations. Our families, circles of friends and even churches are increasingly “sorted” by political loyalty. When this happens, we distrust each other more, hold each other in contempt and our disagreements generate more heat than light. Because we lose contact and (most importantly) trust, we are not more extreme in our policy and vision but increasingly view each other as more extreme. As evidence, witness the perception of Conservative Albertans that the Liberals are militantly anti-oil (in spite of buying a pipeline to save the project) or of social progressives that the Conservatives will massively roll back LGBTQ+ rights or abortion access (in spite of their protestations to the contrary and their record in government).
This is not the robust and enlightening disagreement of a healthy democracy. Instead we have a profound alienation from our fellow citizens without the advantages of a healthy debate about the major challenges that face us. Christians have more than just social and political reasons to be concerned about this situation. If our churches and our families are segregated by political allegiance, then can we be said to “have stripped off the old self with its practices and clothed [ourselves] with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator . . . in [which] renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3)? By all means, let us disagree, even with our sisters and brothers in Christ. But let us not dissent from our fellowship.
Do you have friends with whom you disagree strongly on political issues? How do you have life-giving conversations on tough topics? We want to hear from you! Email ac.reiruocnaitsirhc@rotide.