In the Washington Post, Chuck Lane makes a thoughtful case for reframing the aims of public discourse: “National unity may be beyond our reach; national cohesion is not.” To achieve this cohesion, Lane suggests that we should lower the stakes of contemporary political debates by trying to find compromise where possible and by not trying to impose a one-size-fits-all strategy on the nation as a whole. So, for instance, states might adopt different approaches to minimum-wage policy. Lane rightly notes that the quest for — and achievement of — compromise has been a major theme in American history.
Lane brings up an important point. As the Founders recognized, one of the key tasks of defending a republic as sprawling and diverse as the United States is sustaining a robust and flexible political consensus. A nation without any consensus at all is one that will soon disintegrate. However, part of that consensus can sometimes be agreeing to disagree. Indeed, nurturing a space for disagreement can often be a way of making a body politic more harmonious. Trying to argue your friend out of every supposedly mistaken opinion can be a way of poisoning that friendship, and a similar point applies to political life, too.
The tradition of religious liberty central to the American experiment underlines this task of consensus. Different religions offer sometimes substantially different accounts of human life, but, rather than using government to try to punish the “wrong” sect, this tradition has suggested that government should recognize freedom of religion and that there should be toleration for adherents of diverse religious sects. While there was a consensus that religious freedom was a key component of life in a free and just republic, a corollary of this consensus was the awareness that this freedom might lead to diverse expressions and ideas. Different faith communities would form, and those communities would together collaborate in the nurturing of civil society.
None of this is to say that there is no place for moral and political argument. There is. And there might be some areas where viewpoints necessarily conflict. But part of the task of consensus is navigating those areas of conflict and looking for opportunities where compromise might be possible. In an age of tabloid politics, there’s a temptation to fixate on hot-button issues and to anathematize one’s political opponents. A more sober politics, though, might search for comity rather than social-media clicks. Making every question a federal question, putting religious liberty in sneer quotes, shutting down debate through appeals to “that’s not who we are,” and other efforts to impose conformity on political debates may only end up further dividing Americans.