The Cost of No Dialogue

OK, so I’m a dark mood this week. You could make a case that everyone should feel kind of dark, with the terrible news from Pakistan and China and Russia and other points. I could use a little “quotidianism,” as Bill Griffith puts it.

The clouds over those countries are literal, of natural causes, and I pray with all my heart for the deliverance of their victims. Over in the U.S. however, we have metaphorical clouds, of human origin, that hang over our society.

We can clear them away. But we don’t.

Here’s what I’m talking about. It’s no secret that the state of dialogue in our “public square” is embarrassingly poor. Elected officials denigrate each other’s ideas, regardless of their merit, to score political points. Media—partly from time constraints, partly for other reasons—reduce complex issues to either/ors. Governments gridlock because legislators won’t talk to each other; they have too much at stake (i.e., their jobs) to give ground.

Big deal, you might say. Americans have been fighting and loathing one another since the founding of the republic. We’ve always muddled through before, and we will again. 

Maybe. But it’s not a slam-dunk. 

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote last week about the growing talk of—get this—secession from the Union. People like Texas governor Rick Perry are actively floating the idea. 

I have enough confidence in the stability of our system and the sanity of our citizens—most of them—to believe secession is no more than a tempest in a teapot. But it’s not completely impossible. And the cost? Remember the last time we went through this, oh, 150 years ago? 

The rancor in the public square, and the resulting ill-defined rage that leave millions of voters seething, inherently destabilize us. Angry people can do stupid things. A group of enraged citizens—say, a single state that decides to secede—can do serious harm.

This isn’t the only place where the rancor costs us. If our Congress chose to dialogue and deliberate rather than posture and shout, perhaps we might have made progress on a climate change bill, or shoring up entitlement programs. As it is, the pitched battles of the past two years have left our legislators exhausted, having spent all their political capital, and thus wary of taking on anything else.

But if the experts are right, lack of movement on either could lead to a major disruption of our society—at best.

As my blessed sister-in-law says, “Words mean things.” If we use them to fight with the “enemy,” we risk doing serious damage. If we use them in dialogue, we have a chance to take on—maybe even resolve—the giant challenges of our age.

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