St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community

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Oles on the Election

The “Friendly Democrat’s” Dilemma

By Alexander Quanbeck September 29, 2016

Originally published on the Star Tribune Blog.

Despite the rampant political disagreement in the United States, many of us like to believe that our democracy can be sustained by lawmakers, political candidates, and ordinary citizens articulating their beliefs and attempting to translate them into political action. We hope that those on either side of a particular issue will listen to each other as they offer evidence and reasons to support their respective viewpoint. We believe that through this discursive process we can govern ourselves (more or less) peacefully and effectively.

Of course, as this year’s presidential campaign continually and painfully demonstrates, this democratic ideal is a fantasy. A great deal of political “discussions” seem to consist of fruitless efforts to assert one’s own views amidst hard-nosed opponents who have no desire to communicate. And as it has been frequently lamented, Donald Trump habitually eschews the normal “rules” governing democratic discourse with his appeal to base rhetoric and disregard for evidentially supported arguments. Certainly, politics has always involved far more than respectful, reasoned discussion as citizens and politicians weigh decisions about which candidates to support and what stances to take on policy issues. This year, however, the absence of such reasoned presentation of political views—most notably, of course, in Trump’s platform and “argumentative” style—is particularly apparent.

Due to both to the outrageous proposals on Trump’s platform and the utter lack of reasons offered in defense of them, this year I find myself forced to reconsider how I disagree with Trump supporters. The philosopher William Rowe identifies three different stances we can take towards the views of those with whom we disagree. We can be “unfriendly,” and believe that our opponents have no rational justification for their beliefs. We also might be “indifferent,” and have no belief about whether they have any rational justification for their views. (I suspect, though, that few in this election climate are indifferent). Finally, we can be “friendly,” and believe that those with whom we disagree are nonetheless justified in holding their views.

With respect to most political issues and candidates, I have my own party preferences and loyalties. Yet this does not prevent me from acknowledging that the other side has reasons, often just as compelling and well-supported as my own, for holding their views. Under normal circumstances, I consider myself to be a “friendly Democrat.” In this election, however, I feel differently.

On some level, I can understand Trump’s appeal and the disgust that many feel towards Clinton. Yet I admit that this year I cannot believe that Trump supporters have any sort of rational justification for believing that the presidency of Trump—a reckless and thoughtless man with virtually no policy knowledge, political experience, or even basic respect for other Americans—will make America a “greater” country according to any sort of plausible metric. While I wish that I could be a “friendly Democrat,” I am forced to acknowledge that this year I am an “unfriendly Democrat.” And I suspect that in this matter I am not alone.

As a wannabe “friendly Democrat,” I thus find myself in a dilemma this election season. While I hold onto the conviction that listening to the reasons for the views of others and cogently arguing for our own is an essential component of a functional, healthy democracy, I find myself unwilling and unable to engage in such a process this year. This dilemma appears to have no easy resolution. For now, I reluctantly wait out the coming weeks as an “unfriendly Democrat” and hope that in the future I can again respect the rationality of my fellow Americans’ political views.

About the Author

Alexander Quanbeck is a senior St. Olaf philosophy and history major from New Brighton.