The Good Fight

The Conversations We Need to Have

A new forum for cross-partisan dialogue sparks a tiny bit of hope for the Trump era.

From left, Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama, President George W. Bush, and Laura Bush
From left, Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama, President George W. Bush, and Laura Bush in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009, following the swearing-in of Obama as the 44th president. Jim Watson/Getty Images

With every dispiriting headline and each passing day, the full scale of the Trump administration’s corruption and lawlessness is coming into a less forgiving view. And yet it is now becoming obvious that many Americans have ceased to see what is going on in the White House as an abnormal series of infractions that should scandalize liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike. As one wealthy, highly educated audience member told me after a recent talk, “The institutions sabotage Trump, so Trump sabotages the institutions. They’re all the same. I don’t see what there is to worry about.”

Despite my reputation as a pessimist, I have a pretty sunny disposition. And though I have long warned about the serious danger the rise of populism poses to democracy—not just in the United States, but all around the world—I have always argued that there is a lot we can do to stand up for our values. On the whole, the perilous times we now face have left me feeling energized. But if I’m being honest, the last few months have taken their toll: On some days, I find it hard to picture how we might ever overcome our current divisions to build a society in which all kinds of Americans live together with at least some minimal modicum of mutual good will. And though I love writing this column, there have, of late, been some weeks in which it has felt rather pointless to continue preaching to the same chorus of believers.

Only the amazing civil society initiatives that have sprung up in the hope of deepening our understanding of the current situation have, at least temporarily, helped to alleviate my somber mood: Bright Line Watch has convened some of the leading scholars of American democracy to assess the extent of the danger we face. The National Summit for Democracy brought together activists and donors from both sides of the political spectrum to brainstorm how we might reconstitute our republic once the current storm has passed. And the Coalition for Democratic Renewal has assembled some of the world’s most courageous intellectuals and practitioners to think about how we can defend freedom around the globe. Each of these meetings enriched my thinking about the causes of, and possible remedies for, the rise of populism—and reminded me how many people are, under much more perilous conditions, bravely battling for their values.

But the group that has given me the most hope goes by the overly alliterative name of Patriots and Pragmatists.* Founded by Rachel Pritzker, the president of the Pritzker Innovation Fund, and Mike Berkowitz, principal of Third Plateau, the group originally recruited a motley crew of liberal and conservative intellectuals, activists, and philanthropists to spend three days discussing the populist threat to democracy, what those of us who remain committed to the values of our political system can do to rally to its defense, and how we might be able to calm the partisan passions that are rending the republic asunder.

I have to admit that I was, at first, a little skeptical of the effort. Since some of the participants were reluctant to be publicly identified with a group that included members on the other side of America’s deep ideological divide, the first meetings were private. (In fact, this article is the first to describe the group publicly.) And since I, too, am naturally given to certain partisan passions, I was excited to spend time with scholars such as Larry Diamond or former staffers in the Obama White House such as Ian Bassin but deeply skeptical about whether I could possibly see eye to eye with Republican operatives and movement conservatives such as Bill Kristol and Evan McMullin.

But that is exactly why the experience of spending real time talking to people with whom I continue to have deep disagreements about matters of great political importance—people who I may have written off as insincere hacks or uncultured idiots back when they criticized Barack Obama or cheered on George W. Bush—has been so meaningful. For the longer I spoke with them, the more I had to face incontrovertible evidence that some of the people whom I saw as my political enemies a few short years ago turn out to be both thoughtful and morally serious.

Take David French, a senior writer at the National Review. French is an evangelical conservative; I’m a liberal agnostic. He is a passionate believer in the Second Amendment; I strongly support gun control. He opposes state recognition of same-sex marriage; I don’t think there’s any legitimate excuse for the state to differentiate between citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation. Had we met on some debate stage or in some television studio in 2010, or in 2015, we would almost certainly have clashed; to my shame, I suspect that I would have left our encounter writing him off as a bigot or an idiot.

Having had the chance to spend some real time with French both at the group’s initial meeting last July and at a second get-together this past January, I now recognize how facile that judgment would have been. It is difficult to write somebody off as intellectually unserious when you hear him explain the danger that faces our shared system of government, and the deep moral corruption of those conservatives who have sold out to the rising tide of populism, in more eloquent terms than just about any other person in the country. And it is impossible to deny that someone you might once have thought of as a bigot is morally serious when he casually tells you about the severely undernourished daughter he adopted from Ethiopia and the disgusting threats against her he had to endure throughout the 2016 campaign.

Let me be clear: The point of this exercise is not to downplay or even to resolve our ideological differences. French and I continue to disagree on a lot of things that deeply matter, both to him and to me. Rather, it is to achieve respectful disagreement. As French put it, the purpose of our meetings has been to answer

one of the most important questions of our polarized times. Can men and women on the left and right maintain fellowship and actually work together to preserve the key elements of our constitutional republic? The great virtue of this group is that no one is asked to “moderate” or compromise their core political convictions. We’re simply asked to engage with integrity and civility. The meetings have helped me understand that there are really two “culture wars” dominating American political life. In the first – the battle over ultimate policy outcomes – the people in the group are quite often dramatically divided. In the second – the question of whether the ends will justify the means – the group is largely united. Engaging with integrity and civility isn’t cowardice or compromise, it’s necessary for the health of our republic.

Given the fact that these meetings were initially private, and that some of the people in the room have a good bit of money to donate, it might be tempting to interpret Patriots and Pragmatists as a grand conspiracy to take down Trump. But the truth of the matter is rather more straightforward: The threat posed by authoritarian populists goes well beyond one person, one country, or one political moment. And given the deep polarization in our societies, we will only manage to construct effective defenses for democracy if we are able to build some minimal degree of trust between well-meaning people on both the left and the right.

As Pritzker describes her reasons for founding the organization:

The 2016 election convinced me that political polarization had reached a fever pitch, so I really wanted to learn more about how we got here and how we might renew democratic norms and institutions for the long-term. And I knew that such a conversation had to be cross-partisan, because the only way we will ever escape this hyper-polarized era is by beginning to build authentic relationships across political and cultural divides.

For all of the many wonderful hours I have spent at these meetings, that is hardly going to be an easy mission to accomplish: Even when it comes to comparatively uncontroversial topics like the causes of populism, the members of our group harbor fundamental disagreements. Agreeing on the remedies for some of the acute failings of the status quo is going to be harder still. And even if we did somehow come to agree on the most important points, a short glance at the latest headlines would remind us just how difficult it will be for a small and elitist gathering of political exiles to serve as a model for a real world in which the president is doing his daily best to incite civic discord. If I see one danger for the group, then, it is not that it will mastermind an illicit campaign of covert influence—but rather that it will fail to accomplish much of anything.

“Whoever is winning at the moment,” George Orwell said in one of my favorite quotes, “will always seem to be invincible.” Right now, the populists are winning in many parts of the world, and the prospect for a politics in which adversaries no longer see each other as enemies seems depressingly slim. But though there may seem to be every reason to be pessimistic about the possibility of achieving a better future, we need to keep fighting for it—and to think seriously about what it might realistically entail.

Speaking for myself, I would, at some level, love to envisage an America in which most of my fellow citizens have magically come to agree with all of my social, cultural, and religious beliefs. But even on the best case scenario, that just isn’t going to happen. To beat authoritarian populism and build a country less riven with conflict, we will have to learn to respect each other even in the face of deep disagreements. I don’t know whether Patriots and Pragmatists can make as much of a contribution to that future as some of its organizers hope. What I do know is that being part of this group has been one of the few experiences of the past two years which have left me more, not less, hopeful of inching closer to that important goal.

Correction, May 23, 2018: This article originally misidentified the organization Patriots and Pragmatists as Pragmatists and Patriots.