Fundamentalism has long been part of religious and political thought. For centuries, faith was an all or nothing proposition. Strict adherence to religious texts and dogma were maintained. There could be no compromise as the great monotheistic religions sought to rule the world. Within faiths, Catholic fought Protestant and Sunni fought Shia because of fundamentalist schisms. The Jewish people were persecuted by everyone.
In political thought, the 18th and 19th centuries are remembered for ideological battles between those who favored conservative monarchies versus fledgling liberal democratic leadership. The 20th century featured fundamentalist battle lines drawn between fascism, communism and democracy. This was followed by the all or nothing cold war battle for world domination played out between Soviet communism and democratic states.
On the other hand, American political parties in our pluralist democracy were most often open to divergent views and welcomed large tents which could accommodate both moderates and ideologues. As an example, Northern Democrats proceeding the Civil War were divided into war Democrats who followed Lincoln and peace Democrats who sought a complete accommodation with the southern states.
Recently, things have changed. The democratic tension between individual freedom on the right and equality on the left has hardened the political parties into fundamentalist- like organizations. A new type of political zealot has replaced the moderate actor willing to considerate alternative positions. Partisan tribes have been formed that demand allegiance to a narrow set of ideological political views. Within this context facts and rational thought are unimportant.
There is a party line and the partisan members willingly accept the rigid dogma it entails. In my view the irrationalism of Donald Trump and his followers has much in common with Abbie Hoffman and the 1960s new left, with an opposite ideological spin. Even Ronald Reagan was not above compromise with his political opponents.
Partisan ideology is encouraged, reinforced and made more reasonable by cable news and social media. Mass media provides the fire and brimstone sermons of partisan politics. Within both the Republican and Democratic parties, it is more important to win each conflict, which is non-negotiable, than to understand the positions of the other.
The modern-day political partisan is unwilling to think rationally. Remaining partisan requires little effort and is emotionally satisfying. Conversely, rationality involves stepping outside one’s comfort zone to view the big picture, in all of its messiness and shades of gray. Rational political thought is choice with a conscious, not a blind eye toward conflicting positions.
Social science studies have shown that even a smarter, better-educated electorate does not produce less partisan views. Instead, political participants armed with facts are simply better equipped to argue their own side of the conflict. In one study this was true for both progressives and conservatives. See Dan Kahan: Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection, 4 Judgment & Decision Making 407 (2013).
I have decided that avoiding political partisan fundamentalism is largely an individual decision and requires some effort. For my part, an exercise in respectful tolerance of the views of Trump supporters, with whom I generally disagree, is the key. I begin by making a list of Trump positions that are rational, including the following: 1) Trump has taken steps that have improved the economy. 2) The Mueller Report has detailed a strong case in concluding that the president and his campaign were not complicit in a conspiracy with Russia. 3) Democrats need to cooperate with Republicans to solve the border crisis. 4) The United States should withdraw from further engagement in the Middle East. 5) Taking a strong stand against China is in America’s best interests. Taking the time and effort to understand these positions does not mean I will ultimately agree. It does make my decision making more rational.
Once I have completed this exercise it is easier to resist the Washington-generated bitter war between the two well-funded, sharply defined tribes. It becomes clear that each has its own partisan machines for generating evidence and its own enforcers of orthodoxy. I choose to make up my own mind and stake out my political positions from a more rational place.
My progressive friends would argue that such an exercise gives credence to the “others” and gains no respectful tolerance in return. My answer is that politics should not be an all or nothing proposition. Trump voters and progressives alike share many of the same goals, and we all love America.
If we seek to understand those who disagree with us, even if a final accommodation seems difficult to achieve, something valuable has been gained. If the Trump administration adopts a rational policy with which, after careful reflection, progressives agree, we should not attack the policy in the name of partisan politics. Rationality must begin somewhere.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.