Righteousness comes easily in these polarized times. We all have reasons for our opinions, and we tend to be surrounded by people who hold similar ones. The more we talk politics, the more confident we can become that we’re right.
President Donald Trump, of course, has aggravated the situation. He is alarmingly different from any previous president, which makes his critics more committed to opposing him. His supporters, meanwhile, feel disrespected by every institution from the Republican Party to the mainstream media.
As a result, the Trump era is coarsening our discourse. Too often recently I have watched people I respect spiral from a political discussion into a nasty, personal argument.
So I have a suggestion. By all means, Trump’s opponents should continue to fight — for health care, civil rights, the climate and truth itself. But there is also a quieter step that’s worth taking no matter your views, for the sake of nourishing your political soul.
Pick an issue that you find complicated, and grapple with it.
Choose one on which you’re legitimately torn or harbor secret doubts. Read up on it. Don’t rush to explain away inconvenient evidence. Then do something truly radical: Consider changing your mind, at least partially.
Doing so will remind you that democracy isn’t simply about political force. It also depends on inquiry and open-mindedness. “The spirit of liberty,” as Judge Learned Hand wrote, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” Imagine what this country would be like now if people hadn’t been willing to change their minds in the past.
Today’s polarization — in which left and right are more cleanly sorted — pushes us to double down on all of our views, even the ones we doubt. Opinions, psychologist Steven Pinker told me, “have become loyalty badges for one’s tribe.” In response, I’ve decided to devote part of my summer to thinking through vexing issues. I have steered clear of those where I find the evidence overwhelmingly on one side. I’m not agonizing over whether voter fraud is widespread, climate change is statistical noise or capitalism is dead. If I’m somehow wrong about one of these, I can revisit it later.
In the meantime, I’ve chosen three issues that feel trickier.
Immigration. America is the world’s strongest country thanks in no small part to embracing ambitious, hard-working immigrants. But an anti-immigration backlash just helped elect a president, which calls for some reflection.
It’s possible that the country would benefit from a different policy — one like Canada’s, which admits more people based on skills and fewer based on family ties. That combination could lift economic growth and reduce inequality. It is worth consideration for the political left, center and right.
I recommend the immigration chapter in a new book by legal scholar Peter Schuck, “One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking About Five Hard Issues That Divide Us.” I’m also rereading research on the upward mobility of recent immigrants to see if it’s less encouraging than I’d like.
Yes, the immigration debate is stained by racism and lies. But it also involves trade-offs.
Abortion. The trade-off in the abortion debate is agonizingly basic: A woman’s right to control her body versus a fetus’ right to live. I’m trying to think about the uncomfortable parts of both sides.
Why do many abortion opponents have a change of heart when the decision involves themselves or someone they love? When the decision is no longer hypothetical, forcing a woman to give birth doesn’t sound so good.
And why do some advocates of abortion on demand deny the creeping, technology-driven risk of eugenics? I don’t want to live in a society in which fetuses deemed imperfect are routinely eliminated.
Education. There is no other issue I’ve spent more time debating with readers. To me, the evidence shows that charter schools and other reforms have brought important progress, especially for poor children. Many readers feel differently.
I’m confident we could each learn from the other, about what’s working and what isn’t, in charter schools, traditional schools and other areas.
Here’s a deal for reform skeptics: Dig into a few of the studies, essays and evidence that have persuaded me. In return, email me with reading suggestions.
Whatever your position on these three issues, there is no shortage of others to consider: Tax reform. Trade. Minimum wage vs. tax credits vs. universal basic income. Obamacare vs. single payer.
As in the past, the only way the country is going to make progress on hard issues is if a substantial number of people change their minds. By questioning your own beliefs, you may discover a better answer.
Or if you are lucky enough to have all the right answers already, you will at least increase your empathy for the rest of us.
David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times.