Once we commit to an ideological road it becomes increasingly difficult
to consider counter arguments or even think about compromise.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful volume Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is more than a history book. Lincoln, through Goodwin, teaches us life lessons about humility, preparation, collaboration, and compromise. Our 16th President came to the White House arguably under the most severe conditions of any president. By time he was inaugurated, seven states had already seceded from the nation. Four more would leave within the next two months. It was the beginning of a tragic four years of horrific bloodletting.
As I read the political debates of the Civil War era, the similarities with our political environment today did not escape me. In fact, to call them “debates” is a misnomer. They were then (and are now) more like collective monologues. Many people talking (nay, yelling) with increasing volume—but not many people listening. The results in the mid-19th century were catastrophic. Political agendas trumped rational discourse.
Bill Clinton, in his just-released book Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy, speaks to this divide:
You can have a philosophy that tends to be liberal or conservative but still be open to evidence, experience, and argument. That enables people with honest differences to find practical, principled compromise. On the other hand, fervent insistence on an ideology makes evidence, experience, and argument irrelevant…Respectful arguments are a waste of time. Compromise a weakness. (p. 28)
In short, Clinton reminds us that once we commit to an ideological road it becomes increasingly difficult to consider counter arguments or even think about compromise. Lines are drawn. Entrenchment becomes the accepted rule. Gridlock occurs. A scorched-earth policy ensues.
In critical thinking we talk about the “mind trap” of confirmation bias. Simply put, when we only look for or accept evidence that confirms what we believe we commit an error in judgment. It can shut down honest debate; it can stall progress; it can derail personal, political, and professional relationships. Just look at what has been happening in Washington, D.C.—and beyond.
I would venture to say we are all guilty of confirmation bias from time to time. Clinton’s subtitle speaks to his bias: Government can and should be part of the solution to our economic problems. I would venture to say that some reading this post, when they saw the name of our 42nd President had a knee-jerk response (good or bad). Based on a personal or political ideology they immediately applauded the idea or snarled at it just as readily. Confirmation bias was probably at work.
Another book I am also reading at this time is F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. This 1944 economic classic has been referenced by conservatives to support antigovernment arguments. Collectivism hurts (destroys?) individualism. Put Hayek beside Clinton and you have two different philosophies. Can they both bring something to the table? I think so. But we can’t learn from both if we turn one away simply because “that’s not what I think!” Ideologies can shut down movement.
As you move through your coming week, why not make (or renew) a commitment to yourself to challenge any ideological beliefs you might hold. Identify a confirmation bias when it presents itself. Find something that a philosophical opponent believes. Search for truth, common ground (even if small), and listen. Your beliefs may become stronger—or possibly you will find a nugget of truth or reason and come away with a bit of a different world view.
Enjoy your week—and H.T.R.B. as needed!
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