Barack Obama has been driving Paul Krugman and others crazy with his call for a warm, fuzzy hands-across-America style of politics. Where does this come from? Here’s one answer....
Cass Sunstein. Sunstein has been cited as an advisor to Obama, and he has written extensively on the dangers of a world in which people only communicate with those they already agree with. If the right listens only to Limbaugh and Hannity, and the left logs on only to Huffington and Kos, each side will shift further away from the other, until there is no middle ground left. All will be blinkered extremism. For details, consult his book Republic.com or his continuing stream of papers like this one. (Question: how does he write this stuff faster than I can read it?)
I have mixed feelings about this view of our political condition. On the one hand, as a partial follower of John Dewey, and as someone who teaches at an institution that embraces “learning across significant differences”, I know how important it is to listen with an open mind to those whose point of view challenges your own. You do yourself and the quality of your thinking no favor when you live and converse in an echo chamber.
But there are two problems with the let’s-all-get-along school. First, there is the issue of power. There are wealthy, well-entrenched interests that don’t want an open-minded, cooperative approach to political questions. They are in charge and want to keep it that way. Opposing views will be censored, defunded, misrepresented and, if they arise in distant oil-bearing regions, incarcerated and waterboarded. It is necessary to struggle against these interests if we want to create a world in which thoughtfulness and generosity rule.
Second, what counts as moderation in America is often hopelessly skewed to the right, even by the standards of other capitalist countries. I generally distrust corner solutions—all this or all that—and look for blending and balancing, but if John Edwards is too far to the left to be taken seriously, I’m a speck on the thin edge of the political distribution, several sigmas out. In this respect, the Sunstein/Obama analysis is correct, but radically incomplete. We need to really extend the conversation to the vast regions beyond the pale of approved discourse. The resulting zone of consensus will be moderate by the standards of intelligent human thought but extreme with respect the political constraints we live under today.