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A Respectful Political Discussion

Can we have a Respectful Political Discussion?

I love this meme because it shows what is so wrong with current American politics. I’ve described this issue in a number of posts, especially my “Political Segregation on College Campuses” post, so it doesn’t need to be rehashed in depth. But, disrespectful political arguments are a huge problem for modern America, so I need to describe the problem some. If we as a nation are going to survive, we need to learn the lost art of how to have a respectful political discussion.

Without having a respectful political discussion, our debates will be meaningless and no one will be convinced of the merits of the other side. Instead, we will remain stuck following incorrect policies out of pride or ignorance. That is the wrong path, and it leads only to our eventual destruction. But, by relearning how to have a respectful discussion, we can make the country much stronger.

Historical American Political Discourse

Although Americans have struggled with making sure to always have a respectful political discussion in the past, the problem has seemed to ratchet up in intensity recently. Now, we can’t even seem to have discussions, much less respectful ones.

The Early American Republic:

Take The Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers for example. The authors of those great American political works despised the other side. They fought, bickered, and argued their points all the way until the ratification of the Constitution. However, they were able to remain somewhat civil despite the existential crisis the other side posed to their respective argument.

Nowhere in the Anti-Federalist or Federalist Papers do you see the sort of childish bickering that currently consumes American politics. While the debates were fierce, they were relatively civil. Because of that restraint and foresight, and, of course, excellent writing, the Anti-Federalist Papers and Federalist Papers are keystones of American political thought. Had the authors been consumed by disrespectful political arguments, I doubt that their works would still be revered today.

However, there were instances of childish and harmful political discourse during that period. The most notable of which is Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton. The partisan bickering between those two became too much and ended in bloodshed; a respectful political discussion would have been a far better outcome.

Additionally, the administration of John Adams was constantly battered by “Democratic Republicans” led by Thomas Jefferson that spread rumors and harassed President Adams. That bickering also led to all sorts of problems, such as the threat of secession and huge internal strife. Because the political leaders didn’t practice restraint, the country was almost torn asunder.

WWII and the Cold War

Similarly, the WW II and post-WW II era was a time of huge tensions for America, but also great cooperation. The path the country took could easily lead to nuclear annihilation and global war if we chose our leaders wisely. Because of that, politics were taken more seriously, for a time at least. Businesses put aside their disputes with the government and geared up to arm the military. Politicians stopped squabbling and worked to beat back the Axis and then constrain the Soviets.

Individual citizens stood up for the country and did their part during both WWII and the Cold War. Men like Gary Powers, as described in Bridge of Spies, worked tirelessly for their country. While there were serious political disagreements between Democrats and Republicans, those disagreements were not the sort of partisan vitriol you see today. Instead, they were constructive and were meant to find the best path forward for America.

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But, politics became corrupted by disrespectful political arguments. Joseph McCarthy and his infamous list are the most potent example. Yes, his list may have been mostly full of real communists. I am not defending those communists, I think supporting the ideology of the enemy is treason, a crime worse than murder. However, that didn’t really end up mattering for the rest of history. What mattered was the partisan and self-glorifying way in which he carried out his investigations. It wasn’t a respectful political discussion and, as a result, no one respected him.

Rather than have a respectful political debate about communists in the US and what should be done about them, McCarthy launched a partisan witch hunt. That witch hunt was hugely detrimental to American politics and poisoned future debates about communism in America.

Now, socialists like Comrade Bernie Sanders can claim that men like McCarthy are after him whenever his reprehensible policies are called out. Had McCarthy been more of an adult in the situation, then perhaps things would be different and more traitors could have been exposed.

How America can Regain the Ability to Have a Respectful Political Discussion:

Just look at those two historical lessons. One came from the founding of America. A time when we were weak and could have been easily destroyed if we made the wrong decision. And look at the other, the early Cold War and aftermath of World War II. A time of American power, but also significant vulnerability. In both cases Americans showed how respectful and patriotic they could be, and how partisan and disrespectful. Their are lessons to be learned through that.

What are those lessons? That Americans can have respectful political disagreements, even in the worst of circumstances, and what the consequences of not being respectful are.

Americans can always have Respectful Political Discourse:

In both cases Americans were able to find a way to have a respectful debate. Yes, some people didn’t. But generally, we did. And because of that we survived. The way to have a respectful debate is simple: just behave well. Treat others the way you would want to be treated and hear out their argument, no matter how ridiculous you think it is. The debate will be more constructive that way. We just have to focus on our similarities rather than our differences. And despite what the media says about how polarized and partisan Americans are, I firmly believe that we can find areas of agreement and compromise.

Sure, there are partisan hacks on both sides of the aisle that seek to destroy the potential for a respectful political discussion. But, if we don’t listen to those demagogues, then they can be overruled. It is only when we give them our attention that they rule the discussion. Once we stop doing that, they will be inconsequential.

And make no mistake, the reward for ignoring them is huge. It is the salvation of our political system. Read The 48 Laws of Power and How to Win Friends and Influence People (both books that I reviewed, see them by clicking on the titles).

By reading those books you will understand both how to have a respectful debate, and what the advantages of doing so are. Here’s a hint about the advantage: you might actually convince the other side. Both books show how dangerous arguments are and why, in the realm of politics, it’s important to have a respectful political discussion, not a shouting match.

If you find yourself in a shouting match, you’ve already lost the argument because no one’s mind will be changed at that point. Instead, both parties just dig in more. But, by being calm and respectful you might actually win the other side over.

The Consequences of Not Being Respectful:

The consequences of not having respectful political debates are severe. If the dialogue remains in the current hyper-partisan, childish bickering type state that it currently is, then we are doomed. We won’t be able to sort out our differences, will only grow angrier, and won’t be able to move past our national issues. Instead, we will be stuck in our angry ways. Look at both historical examples.

The argument between Burr and Hamilton got so heated that it ended in homicide, which is pretty much the exact opposite of a respectful political discussion. McCarthy’s tactics were reminiscent of a witch hunt, so after a bit he wasn’t taken seriously. He seemed like just another demagogue, so his accusations against communist traitors weren’t acted upon and communists were able to remain in America. So because of his dialogue, not only was he publicly shamed, but he also failed in his goal of keeping communists out of the government.

Those lessons should be a warning. If we don’t fix the state of our dialogue, then we will have serious problems as a nation. We will just create more problems for ourselves, rather than fixing the current ones.

Conclusion: Have a Respectful Political Discussion as Often as Possible

Can Americans have a respectful political discussion? Maybe. Only if we, as a nation, try to. If we keep listening to our politicians, then we are doomed. They will lead us only farther down the road of partisanship. But, if we take historical lessons to heart, then disaster can be averted. The road to relearning how to respectfully debate political opponents will be a long one for many reasons. The most potent of those is probably the current political segregation of America, as I describe in my “Political Segregation on College Campuses” post.

But, like all problems that can be overcome. We just have to commit to fixing it.


Read about political segregation on college campuses:

Interested in the Anti-Federalist vs. Federalist debate? Then read my review of the Anti-Federalist Papers:

And buy the Anti-Federalist Papers here, on Amazon:

If you want to learn about the Federalist Papers, buy them here, on Amazon:

Read more about the Anti-Federalist and Federalist debate here:

Read my review of Bridge of Spies, a great book about the Cold War and the political debates during it:

And buy Bridge of Spies here:

Check out my review of The 48 Laws of Power:

And buy The 48 Laws of Power here, on Amazon:

See my thoughts on How to Win Friends and Influence People, which is the best book about how to win people to your side:

And buy How to Win Friends and Influence People here, on Amazon: