Most people like to think of themselves as open-minded. Or at least most people don’t think to themselves or proudly proclaim out loud:
“I’m a close-minded person. Pretty narrow. I don’t like to even consider a different point of view if it conflicts with mine.”
It would sound pretty awful. Yet as human beings, we are conditioned to reflexively defend our beliefs. I know I often am. And there’s no crime in that.
But when we get to the point in our politics where we cannot even consider an opposing viewpoint, even in the quiet of our own minds, it’s not a good thing. I would argue it’s a terrible thing; something that takes an already divided country, and cleaves it even further.
I may have lost some folks right there. Some will say that we can’t become any more divided. Others will say that having an open mind and considering a political counter-argument doesn’t make any difference. And then there are those who do the full wave-off: “Aaaggggh — I can’t listen to that crap.”
This article isn’t for those folks. They are entitled to their opinion, and are highly unlikely to be persuaded otherwise.
My question today is for the many millions of other Americans who do think of themselves as open-minded when it comes to our politics. And the question is: Are you really?
This morning, I saw a new physical therapist in Scottsdale, Arizona, to help me heal from a recent surgery. On my way out, I met his wife who runs the office. We got to talking, and after I’d mentioned that I wrote a book about Congress several years ago that was non-partisan — even though I had run Democratic campaigns for several years — she said this:
“Y’know, I grew up in a Democratic family, in a suburb that was definitely more liberal. And now I have so many friends out here who have totally different political views. But I think that’s a great thing. What’s wrong with it? It makes me consider things I wouldn’t ordinary have thought about. All it does is make me more knowledgeable — even if I don’t agree.”
I grew up just outside of Chicago and spent many years living in the city, where at least 75 percent of my friends were left of center. And for the the last several years, my home base has been in Arizona, where about 75 percent of my friends are right of center.
Would I have made all of these politically conservative friends had I not moved to a place that had more conservatives? Of course not!
And after spending so much time with these new friends, have my political opinions radically changed? Of course not!
But, do I have a far better understanding of why they believe what they believe? One hundred percent. And yes, this includes folks who voted for Trump, who I have strong opinions about.
Whether it’s conservative college students I’ve taught at Arizona State, or women I’ve taken out, or guys I smoke cigars with, or friends with whom I play golf and will eat tacos with today at lunch — if I like them, I listen.
Unsurprisingly, once you’ve decided that you like someone based on the things you have in common, the opposing political views you may have aren’t such a big deal. In fact, your conversations are often hilarious. And at the end of the day, you each get your vote. Done.
A friend from Texas texted me last night and made me a dinner bet on the midterm elections today. He’s feeling good, as most Republicans should, because the overwhelming odds are that they’ll win back the US House, and quite possibly the Senate. This is not surprising news; since 1946, the president’s party has lost every midterm election except two. Our system is set up as a pendulum. The Democrats would need a huge mathematical anomaly to hold onto the House Majority.
So my Lone Star pal was ribbing me a little. We don’t agree on much politically, but we can talk and joke about it. The foundation of that came from the way he treated me when we first met. He went out of his way to make me feel welcome with his friends. And when I played golf with him and his seventeen-year-old son — who refused to call me anything else but “sir,” despite my begging him to use my first name — I could see the kind of father he was. I’ve met a bunch of friends like that in Arizona. If I think they have a good heart, and I trust them, and we have fun together, I just don’t give a damn who they’ve voted for. And they don’t care about my ballot, either.
This is not to say that I don’t like a good political debate once in a while — although less and less these days. What I am saying is that our country is riven enough as it is, and to those folks whom I referred to above who think that it can’t get any worse — they’re dead wrong.
The biggest irony in all of this is that recent scientific research indicates people actually decide a lot less of what they believe politically than they think. Plenty of this is hard-wired into us. Avi Tuschman, an anthropologist and political scientist, threaded all of this data together into a brilliant book called OUR POLITICAL NATURE: The Evolutionary Origins Of What Divides Us. He explained how a simple brain scan can accurately forecast whether someone is more likely to become a conservative or a liberal. Tuschman writes:
“Our political orientations are not simple intellectual constructs, flowing from our upbringing, our schooling, our peer groups, or which newspapers we read. No, our political orientations are actually natural dispositions, molded within each of us by powerful evolutionary forces.”
Whether or not one agrees with Tuschman’s conclusions, his objective in writing the book is what matters most: To elevate our political discourse by simply trying to understand how those whom we differ with think.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
I love this Fitzgerald quote — except for the “first-rate intelligence” part. It’s too high a bar, and I’m proof of that. I don’t need to have a razor-sharp intellect to be able to watch Tucker Carlson or Greg Gutfeld, which I do on many nights, and try to understand their points of view. It’s no intellectual decathlon.
It’s just a decision to exercise your mind. To listen. To think for yourself. And to never take your own opinions so seriously that you’d dare not even consider the other side of an argument.
To bel clear: I’m the furthest thing from a being a master of this M.O. It can be challenging. And we all get our backs up once in a while — even when we think we’re trying to listen with an open mind.
But the key is to try. It’s one of the few things in our politics that each one of us still actually controls.