It’s tempting to blame the dysfunction of American politics on presidents, politicians, or political parties, and even easier to demand the remedy from them. The truth is, Americans need to take a look in the mirror to identify the heart of the problem: We have cultivated a political culture where healthy debate is nearly impossible.
The political left and right in America are like partners in a marriage gone bad. Before we can work out problems like health care or other policies, we all need to relearn how to communicate.
According to John Gottman, one of the world’s leading experts on marriage, there is no pattern of communication more lethal to a relationship than contempt. He designates contempt as the single most powerful indicator of divorce. By observing just one hour of conversation between partners, Gottman says he can predict with 94 percent accuracy whether a marriage will end in divorce. It is the presence or absence of contempt, more than any other factor, that makes the difference.
Political Contempt Is No Better
If Gottman were to watch a discussion between politically opposing Twitter accounts in America today, he might predict trouble in our future. American civics was once defined by a determination to never let our differences prevent us from working toward the common good. Today, we seem resolved to savor no victory unsalted by the tears of our enemies. Too many on the Left and Right are as invested in the failure of their opponents as the success of their own ideals. This stems from contempt.
The ongoing health care debacle is just a symptom of this disease. Like partners in a dysfunctional marriage, we have lost the ability to discuss almost anything of importance with one another—the metaphorical “household finances” or “how to raise the children”—without assuming the worst about one another, calling names, and in some cases, becoming violent. As a democratic republic, it should terrify us that contempt plays such a significant role in the emotional signature of our political discourse.
We are quick to raise First Amendment concerns when a university campus disinvites a conservative speaker or when President Donald Trump declares the press to be “the enemy of the American people.” Rightly so. However, we should stand up just as vociferously against contempt. It cannot become the premise of our political culture in person and online, because without restraint, contempt will prove as destructive to our democracy as any policy.
We Can Heal This Relationship
Fortunately, there is a way forward. It’s found in learning how to disagree again. It should be noted that contempt is not disagreement. Disagreeing with another viewpoint is appropriate and healthy in political discourse. If we define disagreement as an assertion that something is wrong with another person’s viewpoint, then contempt is defined as the assertion that nothing about the person is right. We have to be sure that disagreement about a viewpoint does not creep into a judgment about the person. Like marriage partners, we need to find constructive ways to say our piece, disagree, and move forward.
We don’t talk anymore, but all of us can begin. Waiting on politicians will do no good. A return to civil discourse in America must start with us.