PERSPECTIVE: Keeping Our Disputes From Becoming Disdain

Some 35 years ago I was a college intern in the U.S. Senate Radio TV Correspondents Gallery. In those pre-digital days, my job was to take notes on what Senators said on the floor and post them so reporters could decide if something newsworthy had occurred that warranted further scrutiny.  

On one occasion I recall a particularly heated debate between the liberal giant Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio and the conservative icon Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Both men had earned the nickname of “Senator No” in their respective parties because of their willingness to delay any bill that did not meet their ideological standard.  

While I cannot recall what the argument was about, I do remember watching these two political titans absolutely eviscerating each other’s positions. As the Senate went into a break, Sen. Metzenbaum crossed the aisle and whispered something in Sen. Helm’s ear, causing him to roar with laughter. Then I watched these two ideological rivals walk off the Senate floor literally with their arms around each other’s backs, chatting and smiling all the way.

Democracy in the United States is rooted in conflict. It begins during the election when candidates argue over whose ideas are best. Those who are ultimately elected may propose legislation, but they typically must fight with other politicians who have different ideas and represent different communities. Our system is based on the belief that this competition of ideas will lead to the best outcome for the most people.

Unfortunately, the healthy dispute over ideas is degrading into a disdain for those on the other side of the political aisle. In a dispute over ideas, we engage in a rational and substantive discussion about policy issues, ideologies, or political philosophies. People present arguments, evidence and counter-arguments to support their positions. The focus is on the merits of the ideas themselves, and each side genuinely believes that their policy is better for society.  

Disdain, on the other hand, involves a strong feeling of contempt or scorn directed at others solely because of their political affiliation or beliefs. It devolves from a healthy debate over ideas into an expression of hostility for those who hold differing views. Disdain often involves negative stereotypes, personal attacks and dehumanization of political opponents.

Senators Metzenbaum and Helms were engaging in a dispute over their respective ideas. Yet at the very moment when their conflict was at its pinnacle, when they were debating in front of the cameras so anyone in the world could see, they still managed to find some levity and walk off the floor together as colleagues. Theirs was a political dispute. They had no personal disdain for each other.  

In the not-so-distant past, there were countless ideological opponents who maintained cherished friendships. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch told NPR after the death of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, “We fought each other like tooth and tongue but afterwards, we’d put our arms around each other and laugh about it.” Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were known to be the closest of friends. President George W. Bush often publicly refers to President Bill Clinton as his “brother from a different mother.” While these men and women fought vigorously over ideas, they also had a fundamental belief that the other’s values were anchored in a shared love of country.  

This kind of respect rooted in a shared love of place still exists in Door County. We may passionately disagree on politics, but most of us know the other person loves our peninsula and its surrounding islands as much as we do. Unfortunately, this spirit is not preordained. Its continuance is not inevitable. This spirit must be zealously guarded and nurtured or the disdain that characterizes our national politics can easily take root here.  

From local letters to the editor to posts on Door County-centric social media groups, we must keep our disputes over ideas from devolving into a personal disdain for those with whom we disagree. For if we are unable to disagree respectfully with each other, we won’t be able to work together. If we cannot work together, we’ll never be able to come together to solve the challenges that face Door County.

While our local non-profit organizations rightfully avoid participating in partisan debates, they are playing an essential role in ensuring that the people of Door County can continue to look beyond political differences and work together for the betterment of our community. I’ll explore how they’re doing that in my next column.

Bret Bicoy is President andCEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].  

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