By Alan Jacobs
Among the ideas that get amplified in such an environment, one of the most pernicious and (alas) common is the idea that people who are not among the Faithful deviate from the True Path not just because they make different political judgments, or have different beliefs about how best to form a just political order, but because they are, well, evil. One predictable effect of ideological amplification is the transformation of opponents into enemies. Which leads us to Sunstein's second key concept—one which (to my knowledge anyway) he hasn't directly linked with ideological amplification, but which I want to contend is intimately related to it, as a potential antidote. That concept is political charity.
Sunstein's discussion of this subject seems to have begun with his claim that in the aftermath of the midterm Congressional elections in 2006 President Bush and Rick Santorum—who had just been defeated by Bob Casey in his attempt to be re–elected as a Senator from Pennsylvania—behaved graciously in defeat, giving credit of various kinds to their opponents:
"Santorum's concession speech was, in its way, quite remarkable. Showing no trace of bitterness, he began by praising Bob Casey, saying that he was a fine man and that he would do a fine job for Pennsylvania. He specifically asked his supporters to give a round of applause to Casey, and when the applause was tepid, he added, spontaneously and with evident sincerity, 'Come on, give it up, give him a round of applause!' "
Some commenters on this post were outraged by the very idea that people they disagreed with on political issues could behave graciously. "As for myself, however, I will continue to hold Santorum in the basest contempt," wrote one; "Rick Santorum is a loathsome creep," another affirmed. But Sunstein stuck with the idea, and in later posts suggests that Senator Barack Obama exemplifies, in many of his speeches and writings, virtues very similar to that which he credits to Santorum at his moment of defeat. In a later post Sunstein spells out the key components of political charity:
"Three practices seem to constitute political charity. First, those who display political charity do not question the motives of those with whom they disagree. On the contrary, they cast those motives in the best possible light. (Consider imaginable discussions of the Iraq War or affirmative action.) Second, those who display political charity try to endorse the deepest moral commitments of those with whom they disagree. If they cannot endorse those commitments, at least they show respect for them. (Consider imaginable discussions of same–sex marriage and climate change.) Third, those who display political charity try for reforms and innovations that can be accepted by people who reject or even abhor what they take (fear?) to be the defining commitments of the reformers and innovators. That is, a central goal of those who display political charity is to obtain agreements on practices amidst disagreement or uncertainty about what, precisely, accounts for those practices. (Considerable imaginable discussions of increases in the minimum wage, energy independence, or health care reform.)"
Obama gave a speech at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church that Sunstein thinks exemplifies these commitments; he explains why here.
We could, I suppose, debate whether Bush or Santorum or Obama truly exemplifies the grace and charity that Sunstein attributes to them. But perhaps we should in our very evaluations of these cases err on the side of charity, as Sunstein does. He clearly wants to highlight and applaud any charitable words or deeds by our leading political figures, because those words and deeds resist the powerful current of ideological amplification. Every time a defeated politician credits his or her opponent with good character and good intentions, and every time a political candidate acknowledges that those who disagree with him or her may be doing so with moral seriousness, a door is opened in the echo chamber. The volume of the echoes diminishes a bit, and voices from outside the room begin to be discernible. These are small changes, but vital ones if we wish to heal the deep wounds of our current political culture. Cass Sunstein is pointing us all in the right direction.
Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.
Copyright © 2007 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.