Let’s Learn How to Disagree
When it comes to politics, North Carolina is a closely divided state in many ways.
Look at party, for instance. According to an early-March poll for WRAL-TV, 32 percent of registered voters in our state identified themselves as Republicans. The same share, 32 percent, identified themselves as Democrats. (Self-reported party identification is more useful than registration when analyzing voter behavior.) The remaining 36 percent said they were independent, but most of them actually vote either Republican or Democrat most of the time. Only 12 percent are true swing voters.
Now look at issues. Asked to describe themselves as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” on abortion, North Carolina adults were about as likely to say the former (47 percent) as the latter (46 percent). Asked what the next president and Congress should do about Obamacare, 46 percent said leave it alone or leave it in place with some adjustments, while 51 percent said repeal all or large portions of it. And asked how much the North Carolina legislature should raise average teacher pay this year, 45 percent said the raise should be 3 percent or less while 51 percent said the raise should be up to 10 percent. (Confining the sample to registered or likely voters would shift the balance of answers to each question a bit to the right, ideologically speaking.)
As you read each of those poll questions, you probably thought about your own position. Fair enough. Now, see if you can think up the best possible argument for the opposing position — for abortion rights, if you happen to be pro-life, or for repealing the Affordable Care Act, if you happen to like the ACA.
Could you do it without assuming the worst about the other side? Did you struggle even to imagine how someone of good faith could come to a different conclusion about abortion, health policy, or education spending?
Don’t beat yourself up. Lots of us, perhaps most of us, have been struggling with just such a failure of imagination. Here in North Carolina, the political discourse has all too often devolved into partisan cheerleading, shouting matches, and online snark. At the national level, the presidential primaries have coarsened our culture and — let’s be frank — produced two major-party frontrunners who share the dubious distinction of being among the least-trusted politicians in America. In a ABC News/Washington Post survey from early March, just 37 percent of Americans said they thought Hillary Clinton was honest. Only 27 percent said the same about Donald Trump.
The solution to the problem is not to attempt to wish away our disagreements. That would be futile. As I noted, North Carolinians differ markedly by party, ideology, and policy preferences. Instead, I believe that we need to learn to disagree more constructively, with civility and a genuine desire to understand why others think what they think. If such a process yields public policies that most of us can embrace, or at least tolerate as part of a package deal, so much the better. But even if the process doesn’t produce legislative action, it’s still worth doing.
I’m not alone in my belief. A new program called the North Carolina Leadership Forum (NCLF) just made its debut. Housed at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, NCLF is convening some three dozen leaders from across our state — current and former politicians, educators, business executives, activists, philanthropists, and other community leaders — to discuss North Carolina’s economic future.
More specifically, the topic of conversation over the course of 2016 will be how we can enable more North Carolinians to earn enough to support their families. The participants bring a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives to the issue. I am serving as co-chair of NCLF’s steering committee, along with former state senator and Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation executive director Leslie Winner.
While we intend to come up with mutually agreeable solutions to the economic problems facing our state, we also aspire to model the very civil dialogue North Carolina and the nation seem to lack. Please wish us well.
John Hood is president of the Pope Foundation, a North Carolina grantmaker, and chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a public policy think tank.