I sometimes find Jonah Goldberg over-the-top, but I thought he made an excellent point in his “Goldberg File” today. He told a story of a family on a road-trip. The wife wrote “Help. Please God.” in the dust on the back of the car when they were about to begin a long drive. One of her children wrote, “I’ve been kidnapped.” And one of the neighbor’s kids wrote: “Call 911.” A series of thoughtless, seemingly inconsequential decisions that led to numerous drivers calling the cops, the cops chasing the car, and the cops pointing their guns at the father’s head. Goldberg writes:
It seems to me that this is a great little allegory for understanding how really, really, really stupid things happen in life, particularly in Washington. Person A has a harmless idea. Person B doesn’t completely understand A’s idea, but builds on it anyway. By the time you get to person Z, you’re selling hundreds of automatic weapons to Mexican drug cartels.
On both the left and the right there’s a tendency to assume the other side — particularly when it is running the government — is both really evil and really competent. Most of the time it’s closer to the opposite — again, particularly when we’re talking about the government. What appear to be conspiracies from the outside are in fact a series of dumb, innocuous, or even somewhat okay ideas that build on each other into colossally idiotic foul-ups, thanks to imperfect information and mission creep. If there’s a human being out there who hasn’t had some experience with this sort of thing I can only assume it’s because you were raised in a refrigerator box and without human contact. And if there’s a reader out there who doesn’t think this capacity for screw-ups is an important part of the human condition, well, you’re free to read this but you’re not a conservative.
This is the perspective of someone who’s been around Washington long enough to know how the sausage is made. Conspiracies take a tremendous amount of coordination, discipline and secrecy. Idiocy is the easiest thing in the world.
But I particularly want to focus on the assumption that the other side is “evil” — or, since “evil” is probably too strong a word in most cases, at least immoral. Conservatives too often operate on the assumption that liberals have no concern for family values and pursue the expansion of their own power under the camouflage of “compassion” and care for the poor. Liberals too often operate on the assumption that conservatives really don’t care about the common good, and would sooner leave the needy to rot than pay $1 in taxes.
Both of these are absurd, cartoonish caricatures. And this brings me to two of Timothy Dalrymple’s First Principles of Politics.
First, people are more or less the same. Simple though it sounds, I find that conservatives and liberals alike find this offensive. Yet I really believe it’s true. Conservatives and liberals are rational and moral in roughly equal measure. They may emphasize different values, and the values they represent in the public square may be more or less moral (I believe, for instance, that it is more moral by far to serve the cause of life), but conservatives and liberals as people are roughly the same. The same holds true for rationality. Some are conservative for more rational reasons, some for less rational reasons, and the same holds for liberals. Even if liberalism is infected with some bad ideologies, as I believe it is, rational people buy into bad ideologies all the time. And if we think conservatism is not infected with some bad ideologies too, we’re fooling ourselves.
The second principle follows: Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas and good intentions — or bad ideas and bad intentions. This is why every issue has to be examined according to its own merits, and not according to its inclusion in one or another party platform. The best legislation will take the best ideas and intentions from both parties, and yet — as Goldberg says — too often the legislation, because the passage of legislation can powerfully serve the interests of the legislators themselves, is a cobbling-together of bad ideas and intentions. Or, better, most legislation is an amalgam of good and bad ideas and good and bad intentions that both parties have advocated over time. It’s sausage.
This is not an easy way to approach politics. It’s far simpler to believe the bad guys are on one side and the good guys are on the other side. But the world we actually live in is far more complex than that. I believe that all participants in the political dialogue, and especially Christians, need to grant that there are good ideas and good intentions on both sides, stop assailing the motives or assuming the worst of the opposition, and seek creative ways of bringing the best ideas and intentions together, no matter where they come from.