The current crisis of American politics is to some degree a crisis of public debate in general. A breakdown in political rhetoric mirrors a deterioration in the rhetoric in the broader public arena. One of the causes of the rigor mortis of contemporary public debates has been the attempt to force arbitrarily narrow bounds on the range of disagreement. Rather than a healthy and expansive public debate, we instead have one in which many viewpoints are foreclosed before a civil conversation has even begun. This foreclosing is most obvious in the current fever of political correctness, which all too often holds that dissenting opinions arise primarily out of prejudices. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, we see how a radical shame culture can create echo chambers of self-righteousness that obscure facts and prevent a robust civic conversation.
However, at times, the Right might also suffer from its own variant of this vice. A rigidity in the face of 21st-century challenges left the Republican party open to Donald Trump’s insurgent candidacy. A constricted sense of what counts as an “acceptable” viewpoint, for both conservatives and Republicans, contributed to this rigidity. Hunting “RINOs” and other “impure” politicians became more important than developing innovative policies based on conservative principles. When political debates become too restricted or estranged from everyday realities, the door opens to candidates who are willing to break the rules.
The recent contretemps over Donald Trump’s suggestion that flag-burning should be illegal embodies this tendency to set arbitrarily narrow and ahistorical limits to public debate. Many in the media — on the left and the right — were shocked that Trump would support criminalizing flag-burning. Much of the outrage focused not on the specific penalties he proposed (potentially imprisonment or the loss of citizenship) but on the notion that there should be any penalties at all. However, as Charles C. W. Cooke rightly noted at NRO during this imbroglio, there has long been bipartisan support for banning flag-burning.
Public-opinion polls suggest that Americans are conflicted about banning flag-burning. Some polls show a plurality of Americans supporting the idea of amending the Constitution to ban flag desecration, but Americans are far more divided about the penalties for such desecration (a recent YouGov poll demonstrates this tension). Indeed, when the Supreme Court ruled in a 5–4 decision in 1989 that the First Amendment protected flag-burning, the Senate voted 97–3 to condemn that decision. The author of a dissent challenging First Amendment protections for flag-burning was none other than William Rehnquist, one of the architects of the conservative legal renaissance. The fact that Chief Justice Rehnquist believed that the First Amendment does not protect flag-burning does not make such an opinion correct, of course, but it does suggest that First Amendment protections for flag-burning are a topic about which thoughtful people might in good faith disagree. Both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush supported amendments to the Constitution that would allow the criminalization of flag-burning. Unless conservatives want to subscribe to an Obamaesque “right side of history” approach to politics, it might therefore be a bit of a stretch to argue that support for flag-burning laws makes one an anti-republican monster.
But we can see distortions on other issues, too, including immigration and entitlements. The gulf between elite consensus and popular beliefs on immigration is many miles wide. It’s taken for granted in many D.C. power circles that increasing legal immigration is the only sensible (and perhaps even moral) viewpoint to hold. As a result, anyone who opposes increasing the level of legal immigration or who supports decreasing legal immigration is assailed as a bigoted nativist. But increased legal immigration is notably unpopular with the American people.
A Gallup survey earlier this year found that almost twice as many Americans (38 percent) want legal immigration decreased as want it increased (21 percent). When pressed on the exact number of legal immigrants to let in, Americans expressed even more support for reducing legal immigration, as a recent Center for Immigration Studies poll showed. In a finding that might surprise some Beltway mandarins, Gallup reported that Mexican immigrants to the United States were even less supportive of increasing immigration than were non-Hispanic whites. Limiting legal immigration is thus an entirely mainstream opinion. People who wish to increase the already historically high rate of immigration should explain why this is good idea rather than shaming dissenters as fringe.
Some on the right have shaken their heads at the fact that so many Republicans voted for Donald Trump even though he pledged not to enact any cuts to Social Security and Medicare. This is less a sign that Republican voters have sold out their principles and more an example of a politician’s giving voice to positions favored by his voters. For many years now, entitlement “reform” has had much more appeal among conservative policy wonks than among the conservative electorate.
First Amendment protections for flag-burning are a topic about which thoughtful people might in good faith disagree.
A Pew study of political preferences released in 2014 (well before the ascent of Donald Trump) found that 59 percent of “consistently conservative” voters want Social Security benefits to be either expanded or kept as they are. Among “mostly conservative” voters, the second-most-conservative category, twice as many voters want Social Security expanded as want it to be phased out. This policy preference is often reflected in presidential politics. Mitt Romney won the GOP primary in 2012 while defending Social Security from charges that it was a “Ponzi scheme.” Ronald Reagan, perhaps the president most commonly associated with movement conservatism, signed off on a significant tax increase in order to maintain the viability of Social Security.
The fact that a significant portion of the public holds a given viewpoint does not make this viewpoint necessarily correct. No matter what our views are on immigration levels, flag-burning laws, or entitlements, we should acknowledge the broader contours of the public discussion around us. This acknowledgment could help unfreeze our public debates.
Allowing for more-open debate will help achieve two goals. The first is more immediately political, especially for Republicans. In a society in which political power in part depends on winning over voters, any serious political coalition needs to know where the public actually stands. Republicans gained congressional seats in 2010 and 2014 not necessarily because they were so beloved by the public but because of the myriad failures of the Obama administration. In a two-party system, the failures of the governing party often open a door to the rival faction. However, starting January 2017, Republicans will have to win the support of the public if they hope to hold on to their majorities. The dissatisfaction that brought Democrats down in 2010 could pull the GOP under in 2018 if it does not respond effectively to the public’s needs. It will be less able to respond to those needs if it doesn’t grasp the public’s diverse views. (A slightly different point applies to Democrats: If Democrats retreat to a drum-circle of paranoia and aggrievement, they could have a harder time reinvigorating their party.)
But restoring rigor and subtlety to public debate would achieve a greater intellectual good as well. We can trace some of the challenges of the present to intellectual confusion and political nostalgia. If we are going to solve today’s problems, we need to honestly address the record of the past. By exploring the complexities of the past and the present, we can make use of the riches of our inherited intellectual traditions. Real political reform requires sophistication, the entertaining of a range of ideas, and the toleration of dissent — not the endless recitation of tired talking points. If we engage in pluralistic argument rather than knee-jerk excommunication, we can mediate disagreements and perhaps find a promising way forward.