One of the most debilitating aspects of our politics is the assumption that nobody can be persuaded of anything anymore. We are said to be locked into our identities, our media bubbles, our religious beliefs (or nonbelief), our homogeneous neighborhoods and our online friend groups.
This idea radically undermines liberal democracy.
Voting our identities is nothing new, of course. Donald Trump’s 2016 coalition was not all that demographically different from Mitt Romney’s 2012 coalition. It took relatively small swings in a few states to give Trump his electoral college victory.
But elections are not simply census-like head counts, and political arguments are about more than marshaling talking points to solidify the views of those who are already on your side. The advantage of democratic republics is that they foster a free exchange of opinions. This makes it possible for all of us to learn things we didn’t know before, and even change our minds. This process, in turn, allows for national self-correction.
The genius of the civil rights movement of the 1960s is that it really did bring home the nature of racial injustice in our country. The Great Recession and the agitation of Occupy Wall Street and other groups altered the way we discuss economic inequality. The feminist movement transformed the way we think about gender roles, while the movement for LGBTQ rights revolutionized our view of sexual identity. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shifted the debate about guns in fundamental ways.
I doubt all this history was going through House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mind last Thursday when she wheeled around in anger after James Rosen of the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group asked her, “Do you hate the president, Madame Speaker?” But the larger lesson of the American story certainly was.
Her answer brought cheers from her admirers, especially from liberal Catholics who were buoyed by her insistence that “as a Catholic, I resent your using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me. I don’t hate anyone.” It was bracing to see Catholicism invoked as a call to Christian love and prayer — especially for Trump.
But Pelosi was on to something else as well. She knows that Trump’s apologists want to keep the focus on the motives of the president’s opponents and to make this battle about nothing more than partisanship. Those who would let Trump get away with anything want us to talk as little as possible about his own behavior. Their claim is that it’s all about identity — the president’s big-city, liberal, Christian-hating, elitist, immigrant-loving, politically correct enemies vs. his hardworking, religious, gun-rights-defending, taxpaying friends who live in small towns and the countryside.
Pelosi’s invocation of her faith was one way to blow up this narrative, but her care in separating out her political disagreements with Trump (on immigration, guns and climate change) from the reasons for impeachment (his abuse of power and constitutional violations) reflected an awareness that opinion about impeachment is still fluid. Yes, there is room for persuasion.
An analysis by FiveThirtyEight, for example, suggested that about a quarter of Americans were not yet certain about their view of the matter. And those who oppose impeachment appear more open to revising their view than those who support it. A Quinnipiac University survey last month, for example, found that 17 percent of those who were against impeaching Trump and removing him from office said they could change their minds; only 8 percent of those who support it said they might change theirs.
This means that those who see impeachment as a moral imperative need to avoid playing to their own gallery and should fight rather than reinforce the culture-war narratives Trump is counting on.
It’s not surprising that many among Trump’s foes are obsessed with impeachment news, but they must recognize that those who might eventually come their way are not: In the Quinnipiac survey, 21 percent of those who did not watch the hearings said they could change sides, compared with only 11 percent who did.
Paradoxically, looking partisan is in the Republicans’ interest: They want to push the idea that undecided Americans can ignore what’s happening because it’s just “the usual politics.” Democrats have to show that there is nothing “usual” about Trump’s behavior, that he poses a real threat to our system and that they actually wish they didn’t have to impeach him.
Pelosi understands the people her party needs to talk to. It’s why she chose to answer partisanship with prayerfulness, and why she insisted that there is nothing she hates more than hate.