The President, and the complicated truth
The United States is known for its hyper-partisan, rhetoric-laden public debate. From the Huffington Post to Fox News, the left-right divide seems to be gaping wider as news sources and online media act as echo chambers, reinforcing deeply-held values and prejudices.
But once in a while, discussions of real value rise above the din of disagreement and go some way towards bridging this divide. An all-star panel held at a Georgetown University poverty summit last week, notably including President Obama, was one such discussion. Joining the President were Robert D. Putnam, a liberal Harvard Professor, and Arthur C. Brooks, the conservative president of the American Enterprise Institute.
With the tragic deaths and riots in Baltimore and Ferguson focusing attention on poverty through the lens of race, the broader debate on the causes of poverty in the States falls down predictable lines—the decline of culture and family on one side; the failures of the capitalist economic system on the other. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
As the President put it, “we have been stuck in a debate that creates a couple of straw men. The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don’t care anything about culture or parenting or family structures, and that’s one stereotype. And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody are moochers…I think the truth is more complicated.”
And he’s spot on. It is complicated, and we all have a share in it. He continued, saying that “if coming out of this conversation we can have a both/and conversation rather than either/or conversation, then we’ll be making some progress.” Straw men arguments certainly shore up political support, but they also scare away conversations that can influence policies that can change lives for the better.
This is why it was encouraging to hear the panelists speak in the spirit of “both/and.” The President argued for significant economic reforms on one hand and the need for young black men to take greater responsibility as fathers on the other. Brooks argued that the right should declare peace on the safety net, heralding it as “one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise,” while Putnam argued that the left should care deeply about the family, imploring that they “shouldn’t just assume that anybody who talks about family stability is somehow saying that the economics don’t matter. Of course, the economics matter.”
If we could move towards assuming the best in the others motives and arguments rather than the worst, we would find ourselves standing on a firm foundation for meaningful conversations, and hopefully, better outcomes for all. Perhaps the President’s imminent exit from the White House has allowed him to speak beyond party lines, but regardless, this conversation is a good omen for America—for both the politicians and the poor. Perhaps the division is not as wide as it looks.