When political opponents are divided, an appeal to pragmatism can still persuade.
How to speak to voters who at this stage of the election--less than two weeks to go--still ardently support John McCain is a topic that has been on my mind quite a bit, lately. I think of them as 'the unpersuadables.' No matter what we may say to them, they are not voting for Obama. Period. So, what do we say to them?
I am not thinking just of people who parrot the 'Obama is a terrorist' or 'Obama is a socialist' smear campaigns. I also mean people who genuinely believe, for example, that John McCain's having been a soldier and a senator makes him more qualified. Unpersuadables come in many shapes and sizes, are all different ages. For goodness sakes, they're a little less than half the country. Where the Bush administration demonized their unpersuadables, many believe that it is best to take a very different approach this time around.
This topic is less about finding the right words to convince people who cannot be convinced, than it is about taking the first steps towards a different kind of national debate altogether. Step one, it seems, is to begin looking and listening for new arrivals. In this video from a group called Conservatives for Change, I find the first glimpse of an answer--and this is exactly the time to begin listening to these kinds of narratives.
Now, I cannot say that I find this video moving or powerful, although I am very grateful to the organizers who produced it. Instead, I would use a different word to describe it: healthy.
What I mean by 'healthy' is very simple. American civic debate is unhealthy after the 40 year rise and fall of Nixon-style right-wing politics. As a result, our system of government has trouble addressing large problems, formulating large goals, and accomplishing large projects. The complete solution is not just to elect a new party (although that is a very, very important part), but to elect a new party and do the day-to-day work of rebuilding the pragmatic foundations on which our system used to be based.
The Conservatives for Change video is 'healthy' because each person featured in it, by virtue of their choosing pragmatism over party ideology, contributes a first act towards rebuilding our civic debate.
All that we know about conservative ideology, they each tell us--all that we feel is right based on how we have voted and debated politics in the past--all of that pales in comparison to the problems that we must begin to solve right now.
Notice two aspects of these narratives in the video: their focus on problem solving over party and their emphasis on short-term change in political behavior as a risk worth taking to begin driving government in a better direction.
Short term risk will be, I believe, a crucial concept in the effort to reach out to talk to "unpersuadables" in the next four years. What we are looking to do is not radical conversion to a political perspective that may be strange, uncomfortable, or in some cases frightening--whether those fears are fair or not. Instead, we are looking to invite people to put aside those concerns just for the moment or else risk missing an opportunity to move an important project forward. And to make this kind offer successful, it must be tied to in truly pragmatic, truly urgent challenges.
The most compelling narrative in the video, in this respect, is from the young man who confesses to being 'pro-life,' but who put that issue aside for the 2008 election. What kinds of projects move a person with such deep religiouis commitments to put aside a key issue--temporarily--in order to vote for a Obama? He does not say, but I suspect they are global warming, healthcare, poverty, retirement, Iraq, the housing market.
The task ahead, of course, is not only to find these broad categories, but to find those projects that are the most compelling to the greatest number of people, and then to bring those projects and their pragmatic outcomes into our daily habits in political conversation.
I suspect the window to begin pushing for this kind of change will be astoundingly brief. Should it come to pass that Barack Obama wins the election in two weeks, Americans with an interest in rebuilding a healthy, pragmatically oriented civic debate must already be underway--we must begin even before the celebrating dies down and expect the window to close within a few months. Should John McCain win the election in two weeks, the window will be even shorter, but the timetable will be the same.
How can each of us begin to think about this kind of change?
As a first step, try this simple exercise: The next time you see someone with a McCain-Palin pin, try thinking about a set of possible projects that you might initiate to persuade them to temporarily give up their party allegiance and join in the pragmatic effort. What might those be? Health care? Renewable fuels? Sustainable use of water? Whatever your list of topics may be, when you see an unpersuadable on the street, try not to think about the intractable distance between yourself and that person, but direct your thoughts instead the the goals that will require everyone's hands to accomplish.
I tried this the other night. While standing in the subway, I saw a gentleman wearing a 'McCain-Palin' pin--in New York City--and at first I thought to myself, 'Goodness. Can I even stand in proximity to this person?' Then I forced myself to think about my own list of pragmatic goals. At the top of my list is an ambitious, but absolutely necessary project: the wholesale reinvention of the combustion engine by American auto-industry. It is a pet interest of mine that I almost never enters into my writing or speaking. And I began to think, 'What would it be like to speak to this person wearing a McCain-Palin pin about this necessary goal of reinventing the car? How would I begin that conversation?'
And in thinking abou this topic and about speaking to an unpersuadable about it, my gloom quickly dissipated.
Pragmatism, I believe, is a cure for the seemingly fatal sickness corroding our civic debate. Pragmatism, as mundane as it may sound at first, is the broad political and philosophical category that contains every great project the U.S. has ever solved. We put a man on the moon because of our pragmatism. We liberated Europe from the Nazis because of our pragmatism. No American can resist it. We are all drawn to its promise, its ideals, its glance towards the horizon.
But what we do not do anymore is think about our political conversation--our civic debate--as something fueled by pragmatism. Instead, we allow our civic debate to be dominated by interests who benefit more from projects that fail than from projects that succeed.
Now is the time to start practicing again. And with any luck, by this time next year, we will be talking about the first steps towards success.