It can be easy to romanticize the past, to imagine that yesterday was somehow more civilized than today. Each time has had its disruptions and discord. But there is something about our current moment that seems uncharacteristically combative. Americans hate each other right now. We are, in some cases, literally at each other’s throats. The confrontations seen between supporters of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders exhibit this most plainly. But the discord resonates throughout institutions at every level of American society.
Speaking into this state of affairs, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called for a higher form of discourse while addressing a group of congressional interns on Wednesday. Here’s an excerpt from his remarks:
Ideas, passionately promoted and put to the test—that’s what politics can be. That’s what our country can be. It can be a confident America, where we have a basic faith in politics and leaders. It can be a place where we’ve earned that faith. All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of “our base” and “their base,” we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold.
We don’t resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you. We don’t just oppose someone or something. We propose a clear and compelling alternative. And when we do that, we don’t just win the argument. We don’t just win your support. We win your enthusiasm. We win hearts and minds. We win a mandate to do what needs to be done to protect the American Idea.
In a confident America, we also have a basic faith in one another. We question each other’s ideas—vigorously—but we don’t question each other’s motives. If someone has a bad idea, we don’t think they’re a bad person. We just think they have a bad idea. People with different ideas are not traitors. They are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens. Sometimes they’re our friends. Sometimes they’re even our own flesh and blood, right? We all know someone we love who disagrees with us politically, or votes differently.
But in a confident America, we aren’t afraid to disagree with each other. We don’t lock ourselves in an echo chamber, where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions we already hold. We don’t shut down on people—and we don’t shut people down. If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better. We don’t insult them into agreeing with us. We try to persuade them. We test their assumptions. And while we’re at it, we test our own assumptions too.
This message isn’t sexy. It isn’t polarizing or edgy. For that reason, you probably haven’t seen much coverage of it, and you probably won’t. There just doesn’t seem to be much interest in aspiration these days. The “anti-establishment” sentiment in both parties has metastasized into a desire to watch the world burn.