The recent budget deal struck by Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan is being hailed as a groundbreaking compromise, and a defeat for the obstinate “ideological purity” of the Tea Party.
It is not the first reaction of its kind. Commenting on the government shutdown of October, Carl Bernstein (the famed Watergate investigative journalist) recently wrote that “We are becoming more and more close-minded as a people, culturally.” Bernstein and others blame the current budget impasse and resulting “polarization” of discourse on politicians who engage in “ideological warfare” by sticking to their convictions.
Similarly, a recent article from The Wall Street Journal claims “there are many reasons to think Congress is more polarized than at just about any time in its history.” Peter Wehner, writing in Commentary, laments this trend as “a break with the kind of moderation that is essential for a free society.” “Extremism,” he writes, “leads to dogmatism and distorted thinking, to viewing politics in apocalyptic terms.”
How instead should politicians conduct themselves? The implication is that they should be more “open-minded” and more “moderate” in thought and in action.
Open-mindedness is commonly considered to be a virtue. Good people are thought to be open-minded because they listen to what others have to say and do not assume that they are always right just because they happen to have an opinion on an issue. At first glance, there seems to be nothing wrong with that attitude. However, when one is called upon to be more “open-minded,” what is really being asked?
When Ted Cruz took a firm stand against Obamacare, saying that it was immoral, he was criticized by many for being an “extremist” and “close-minded.” But his critics were obviously not giving the same consideration to his viewpoint as their own. In view of this double standard, what then are proponents of “open-mindedness” really after?
Particularly in arguments about politics, morality, religion, or art, those who say we should be open-minded are asking for more than simple courtesy. They are asking you not to seek definite answers to controversial questions. They would have you assume we cannot know such answers. They would even object if you ask questions about popular opinions that most take for granted. In short, they are asking you to surrender your mind and your judgment to the evaluations and judgments of others.
But stop and ask yourself: what is practical or “realistic” about not seeking answers? How can we achieve anything if we assume that we don’t or can’t know anything or that there are no standards for what is right or wrong? It may be a difficult to answer moral and political questions, but why does that mean answers do not exist? Are there no moral or political questions that we can answer? Are there not some practices or mindsets that are definitely wrong?
At one point in our country’s history, the idea that there was something wrong with racism was very controversial. The dominant view was that blacks were inferior to whites and deserving of lesser treatment. However, a few individuals opposed this mindset and asserted that racism was definitely morally wrong.
Were the critics of racism being “close-minded” in supposing they could definitively answer this controversial question? On the contrary, they were challenging a received viewpoint by critically examining the evidence and by challenging the framework through which the majority of people viewed such issues.
For instance, when racists claimed that blacks were less than human and should be treated like animals, critics asked whether a superficial trait like skin color determines our humanity. They suggested that it might be our achievements and our method of survival instead. Critics of racism pointed to what ancient Africans had created (sometimes before Europeans): iron smelting, the domestication of animals for food, along with complex political and judicial systems. They asked, “If blacks are just animals could they have created these things? Then why are we treating these people like animals?”
To understand and to confront the immorality of racism people had to be active-minded, not open-minded or close-minded. By being close-minded, racists evaded the evidence for our shared humanity. By being open-minded, the intellectually lazy moderates of the day only sought to compromise with the racists, allowing some slavery, some segregation, but not too much. By being active-minded other individuals eventually dismantled racist assumptions and compromises with them. The solution to today’s moral, political, and social issues must also be active-mindedness.
The issues we face today are of course very different from the problem of racism. But the point is this: if active-minded activists could help find answers to these questions, if they could help settle a controversy that once tore our nation apart, we can solve our problems today through the same approach.
An active-minded approach requires that we engage in the same process of asking what is morally right and wrong. It requires that instead of reprimanding Cruz for offering an opposing viewpoint and demanding that he be more “open-minded,” people should give reasons for thinking that Cruz is wrong if they think he is. And it suggests that we can find answers about the budget controversy if we ask the right questions.
Bernstein and others blame close-mindedness and ideological warfare for shutting down the government. However, major controversies underlie the debate between Cruz and his opponents. Politicians need to be active-minded to get to the bottom of these controversies. They need to question the assumptions of their opponents and look to see if there is evidence to justify their own assumptions.
On the question of the budget deficit, politicians must ask fundamental questions about our government. They need to ask, is it right or wrong to always resort to raising taxes in order to maintain the government’s out-of-control spending? Are the programs these taxes fund necessary simply because they have been in place for so many years? Were these programs ever envisioned or intended by the Founding Fathers’ view of government? On what principles was our government founded? What is the proper function of government?
To cease to ask these questions is to subject our entire political system to the whims of any politician who is the most successful in forcing his close-minded ideas down other people’s open minds. Rather than lazily accepting someone else’s answers, we need to seek and find answers of our own. The answers might not be easy to find, but answers do exist.
Sarah Martinson is a journalism student at Columbia College Chicago.