Reasonable People Can Differ?

Not with me they can’t. 

It is often said that reasonable people can differ, but I’ve never entirely agreed with that. And yet never before have I felt more strongly that I was surrounded by unreasonable people than during the five weeks after Nov. 7. Or at least never before since I was a teen-ager.

The Recount may not have been a bigger national obsession than other total-immersion controversies that have become a regular part of our culture in recent years. (We never even came up with a good name for it. “Recount” is exactly what it wasn’t.) But for me, at least, it posed the question, “How can reasonable people believe that?” more vividly than any previous contender.

Let’s run through the list. Elián González? Question doesn’t arise; reasonable people not apparent on other side. Monica? A stew of ambivalence; possibility of reason on the other side all too apparent. O.J.? Nobody reasonable could believe him, and nobody did. Clarence Thomas? Turned on a narrow factual uncertainty; strong beliefs on both sides unreasonable. Bork? Although bitter, a rather high-minded scholarly debate, as these things go. Iran-Contra? What was that all about again?

Even in theory, the notion that reasonable people can differ is a bit lame. On matters you’re confident you are right about, it is surely bewildering how others can differ. The temptation is to assume they must be stupid or dishonest, and that is often true. But often it is patently not true. So you wonder: I am not gifted with superhuman vision. Why don’t all reasonably intelligent and honest people see things the way I do?

They could of course be blinded by prejudice or predisposition. I think this is often the case, especially about politics. Intelligence and honesty are sometimes no match for comfortable habits of thought. Everyone cannot be expected to rethink his or her entire framework of beliefs every time a new issue comes along. It’s possible, I charitably suppose, for even fair-minded people not to realize how wrong they are.

The distressing corollary of this generous thought is that I might be one of these misguided people. I don’t think so—but then I wouldn’t, would I? And it’s also a puzzle what one should do about this possibility. On the one hand, it’s important to keep the danger in mind, to take the competition out for a mental road test before you buy an opinion on some issue, and to trade it in at any time if you’re persuaded it’s a lemon. On the other hand, deriving your specific opinions from a framework of beliefs is a good thing, not a bad one, and excessive self-doubt can be paralyzing and even dishonest in its own way. If you can’t decide, maybe you should try harder. And if you’re sure you’re right … well, you’re sure you’re right, aren’t you?

In ordinary times, even the professional opinionizer learns to live with the mystery of how other people can be so wrong. But when so many other people, some of whose honesty you respect (James Baker not included, obviously), seem in all sincerity to believe the unbelievable, that induces epistemological vertigo.

It swept over me one day while watching Bill Bennett being interviewed on CNN. Bennett has, if no more, at least a commercial interest in his reputation for intellectual integrity. And he characteristically began by declaring that he was not in touch with the Bush campaign. “I don’t have talking points.” But he had independently come to the conclusions that a) Gore was trying to “change the rules” by asking for a manual recount; and b) manual recounts are a terrible idea “because of the uncertainty in counting by human hands, the subjectivity that’s introduced.” Asked about the Texas law, signed by Bush, authorizing manual recounts if the machine count is close, Bennett sneered, “I’ve heard a lot of things from lawyers in the last few weeks,” but nothing so ridiculous as the idea that “the law in Texas governs what goes on in Florida.”

A clever answer. But an honest answer? One distinctive feature of the Recount episode was the way disagreement on non-ideological issues such as this one split along party lines. (And on some ideological issues—such as states’ rights—the parties flipped.) That makes both sides suspect, I suppose. However, either the world is not as I perceive it to be or reasonable people cannot seriously differ that a) manual recounts were uncontroversial standard operating procedure in Florida and elsewhere before Nov. 7; and b) the fact that Bush signed a manual recount law himself is at least relevant evidence that manual recounts can’t be the obvious absurdity that Bennett was trying to paint them.

In my world, if you told a couple of reasonable people that there had been an election in Florida, it was very close, and one side wanted to recount certain counties but didn’t oppose counting others, while the other side said that all manual recounts were out of the question, these two people could not honestly differ about which side deserved the epithet of trying to “change the rules.” And even if you told them that the anti-recount side had a plausible technical legal case—involving various deadlines and the ruthless exercise of “discretion” by officials on their side of the case—these reasonable people would not have differed about which side was more entitled to feel self-righteous. The right to vote and have your vote count seems like an appropriate, or at least explainable, basis for passion. But where do you honestly get passionate intensity about defending the web of technicalities used to defeat that right?

I don’t mean to rehash these old arguments. Quite the opposite: My point is that all this seems obvious to me beyond the need for argument. If it doesn’t seem that way to you, one of us has a problem with reality. And both of us have a problem with this great national reconciliation everyone is so gung-ho about.