We have entered the season of unsatisfying political rituals.
This week, we get the State of the Union Address. With creaky ceremony, the President will tell us the state of the union is strong. His team will cheer and stand up dozens of times. The other team will cross its arms and mostly remain seated.
The rest of the month we get the jockeying and posturing of presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. In countless town halls and meet-and-greets, as polls come in more frequently and the pressure intensifies, they’ll all strive for that oxymoronic sweet spot of manufactured authenticity.
What keeps us watching all this stagecraft is the possibility of something veering sharply from script — the chance of a gaffe or a break in protocol, the unplanned moment that reveals the person beneath or that perfectly captures a conflict.
But what also keeps us watching is that these are ritualized occasions for citizens of left and right to righteously reinforce previously held beliefs. I’m as guilty of this as many Americans. And like many Americans, I’m also growing weary of it.
The meaning of ‘Australia’
When President Barack Obama held a CNN town meeting on gun responsibility in America last week, he did something unusual in national politics these days. He engaged with people who did not already agree with him.
The occasion revealed just how wired people have become to hear what they want to hear. The President spoke of Australia, a country that in the aftermath of a gun massacre took societywide steps to reduce gun violence. His critics, gun-rights advocates, heard him calling for confiscation of firearms. He described reasonable steps to stem a public health crisis. His critics heard him trashing the Constitution.
It was challenging for him. But what if the President had gone even further? What if he’d done a town hall with only gun-rights advocates?
Indeed, watching him made me wonder: What if politicians across the spectrum committed to a new ritual — speaking to groups composed entirely of people from the other party? There would be no one to cheer your partisan points. No one would let you off the hook if you tried to avoid a tough topic.
Bernie Sanders made a much-publicized speech last fall to the evangelical and conservative students at Liberty University in Virginia, then took questions. This was the right idea.
How would the other Democrats have done in a true give-and-take on the Liberty campus?
Into the lion’s den
The other day, I caught Marco Rubio on C-SPAN doing a very effective job as he worked a room of Republicans in Iowa. His prepared remarks were over. He was just meeting people informally, connecting their concerns to his agenda. How would he have done in a room full of Iowa Democrats?
That kind of engagement — call it an “Unsafe Spaces” experiment, or “Into the Lion’s Den” — could be a great boon to our politics.
For one thing, it would reveal which of our politicians is capable of actually listening to the other side. Who has something to say after the talking points are exhausted? Who is willing to learn in the midst of fierce disagreement? That’s a far better measure of fitness for a governing role than whether you can fire up your base.
It would also rehumanize political campaigns.
Yes, some politicians would avoid such a setup because of the risk of being exposed as a one-note ideologue. And some politicians in the lion’s den might feel tempted to sharpen differences, to make a performance of their contempt for the mob from the other party. But this is where we, the people, come in: We’d have to act like something other than a mob.
The setup of the ritual — many of us, one of them — would nudge us to treat the visiting political figure with a measure of civility and to engage her or him in good faith. With ground rules that allow the politician to speak without being bullied or drowned out, we could set in motion a contagion of respect.
Ultimately, the point of creating such “safely unsafe” political spaces would be less about persuasion and more about demonstrating the possibility — the necessity, in fact — of understanding why people don’t agree with us. Perhaps their moral wiring is different. Perhaps a life experience shaped their politics. Perhaps they are afraid.
Not a single mind would have to be changed. But some minds might be opened. Political disagreement, instead of being ritualized and weaponized, could become the basis for more authentic engagement with fellow Americans.
And that could truly strengthen the state of the union.