Neither fools nor knaves

This newspaper has never lamented partisanship in federal politics. 

Parties are coalitions of people with shared opinions who, by definition, disagree with people in other parties. The plaint “Why can’t we all agree?” is easily answered, “Because we don’t.”

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Agreement per se is not as important as what is agreed — ask any lemming — and it trivializes politics to argue that its practitioners should abandon what they think right and accept what they think wrong in order to achieve bankrupt consensus.

But disagreement does not have to be disagreeable, as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is fond of saying. This understanding, which is shared by many people on both sides of the aisle, is, however, forgotten or ignored too often and by too many people — both elected officials and the wider public.

America has a much more politically engaged populace than it did a generation ago; the rising proportion of registered voters who actually vote is testament to that. But rising political engagement has been attended by rising hostility between the tribes — Democrats versus Republicans, liberals versus conservatives.

Beneath this hostility is a crucial misunderstanding, which prevents people from accepting that other people may disagree with them in good faith. Far too often, people with strong opinions cannot get past the idea that the fellow who detests their views and policy prescriptions must be either a fool or a knave, and must be excoriated, crushed and drummed out of all debate among decent, civilized people.

But reasonable people do disagree, and reasonable political discourse is impossible if we answer anyone who rejects our opinions by impugning his motives, honesty, information or intelligence.

These thoughts arise not out of the murder of six innocents in Tucson, Ariz., last weekend, and the grave injuries inflicted on many others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). They arise, rather, out of the ensuing debate, in which people have wrestled with how to interpret the event and whether it should prompt new laws, security arrangements or rhetoric.

The attack was an act of madness, and it is a relief that 57 percent of people (in a CBS News poll) reject suggestions that heated political rhetoric in some way caused the violence.

Nevertheless, political discourse has been lamentably debased for many years by legions of people on a spectrum that extends all the way down to those who equate our 43rd and 44th presidents with Hitler.

Members of Congress operate on a more respectable plain, but they too stoop to suggest that base motives actuate their opponents.

If the 112th Congress avoids such stuff more than its fairly recent predecessors, it will have achieved something to applaud. If more people accept that those who disagree with them are not necessarily fools or knaves, merely smart, well-intentioned people who see things differently, it would be a signal achievement — and both a conservative and progressive one at that.