Playing by the Rules

One of my friends who is herself quite liberal--she favors legalized abortion and gay marriage--wrote to me yesterday about a conversation about politics that she had with another friend that ended with her friend claiming that she (my friend) "didn't think that history had ever happened." The conversation left my friend somewhat upset ("Oof," she wrote me, "feeling your pain right now") and wondering why such conversations are so hard to have without descending into such ad hominem attacks (not quite the way she put it, I am paraphrasing here). Our conversation (which ranged widely and has given both of us much food for thought--I have promised her multiple blogposts) ended with her proposing a set of guidelines for how to have productive conversations, beginning with the premise that "all parties must acknowledge [that] the other is intelligent." 

Her subsequent premises were equally sensible:
All parties should also acknowledge that they are working towards a common goal...a more prosperous country...[and that] no one is actively and intentionally trying to destroy the country.  
Everyone must acknowledge that a single system of thought/party can[not] be right about every single issue at all times. We *always* have something that we are wrong about, and we should always be trying to figure out what that thing is.
Once you've acknowledged you're not right about everything, agree that a good place to start is by talking to people with other viewpoints.
Be willing to take a break from the conversation if you get too emotionally invested. Even though most of the issues we're talking about have personal impacts on everyone, talking out of anger or hurt won't fix anything. 
So, after all, why don't we? Why have our political conversations become so rancorous and mean-spirited? Why do even friends find it nearly impossible to talk about the things that they see happening in our country without ending up feeling like they have to take sides in a mud-slinging match? Why is every national debate so divisive when everyone loves our country and wants the best for its people? Because, of course, we are all not playing by the rules that my friend suggested. Some of us are playing by rather different ones.

Here are a few of them (there are thirteen in all, according to Wikipedia):
3. "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. 
5. "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.
8. "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new. 
11. "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.
12. "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative." Never let the enemy score points because you're caught without a solution to the problem.
13. "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.
Why does it feel like every time you turn around, somebody in the political media is making a personal attack rather than discussing the issues? Rule 13. Why do so many of our political conversations end in verbal or physical violence? Rule 11. Why does it seem like nobody can open his or her mouth without being subject to mockery and abuse? Rule 5. Why is everyone apparently so unwilling to acknowledge that the other party is intelligent, also loves our country, and might possibly have some ideas that are worth trying out? Rule 3 (which is basically advice on how to make your opponent look stupid). Why is every conversation so polarized, with one side cast as the enemy? All of the above.

Saul Alinsky, the author of these rules, was not, of course, the first to employ such polemical tactics in seeking to organize a party for reform--check out some of the things that Martin Luther said about his enemies--nor was he the first to claim that the ends justifies the means (look up Robespierre's 1794 "Report on the Principles of Public Morality," which he made in defense of the revolutionary Terror). What is different is that nobody in Luther's day pretended that he was not at odds with the pope ("I can with good conscience consider you a fart-ass and an enemy of God"*) or that Robespierre was not complicit in the executions in the Place de la Révolution. I suspect my friend has never heard about Alinsky, or if she has, does not know that Hillary Clinton wrote her senior thesis at Wellesley on Alinsky. Nor is it likely that my friend associates Alinsky's tactics with our president, the "community organizer" (Alinsky's term), even as she deplores the fact that our politics during his presidency have only become more and more divisive. Rather, so skilled have those who follow Alinsky's rules become that most of us aren't even aware that there are rules, only bad feelings and broken politics. 

"All parties must acknowledge that the other is intelligent" vs. "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." I don't know about you, but I like my friend's rules better.

*From "Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil," pg. 344 of Luther's Works, Vol. 41.

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