Former President Bill Clinton, the white, male, cisgendered, neoliberal, Southern-born, philandering, liberal-internationalist New Democrat, used The New Republic's 100-year anniversary to issue a challenge to the magazine. In the coming century, he implored, "make people debate an issue instead of labeling each other."
He rightly fears that citizens are no longer engaging one another.
"You know, Americans have come so far since, let's say, the era of Joe McCarthy. I mean, think about it. We're less racist. We're less sexist. We're less homophobic than we used to be," he said. "We only have one remaining bigotry. We don't want to be around anybody who disagrees with us.* And if you look, actually residential patterns in America are changing. I mean, not just by congressional districts. I mean fixed-line borders, like counties, the internal, social and political complexion of them are changing, and we also are siloing our information sources."
Clinton credits his mother-in-law for this insight:
I read the other day that 47 percent of self-identified conservatives will only watch Fox News on television. That's good for Fox News. I mean, it's a good business model. My mother-in-law, who died a couple years ago at 91, and whom I love dearly and who lived with Hillary in our Washington home while she was secretary of state and senator, was the most liberal member of our family. She watched Fox News every day. I asked her if she was trying to give herself a heart attack. She said, "No, I'm just trying to keep my blood pumping."
But then she said, first of all, Bill, I need to know what they're saying so I have an answer and I need to know what they're saying in case they're right. She said, nobody's wrong all the time. It's almost biologically impossible. So it was really interesting to see for me—as I had time to study this in the last few years—how much we are disaggregating ourselves from people who disagree with us.
There are, of course, better places to find intelligent conservative analysis than the Fox News Channel. Cable TV is no place to send people hoping to be better informed! But the spirit of the remarks are right on. Marshaling labels does little more than assign stigma while evading substance. It encourages prejudgment, stereotyping, caricature, and vilification. Focusing on ideas permits people to disagree without anyone being cast as a villain. It facilitates persuasion by making it clear that people can change their mind without abandoning their identity.
Politicians are often clueless about the way that intellectual organs ought to operate. Credit is due to Bill Clinton for taking a stand on behalf of liberal values and understanding the special responsibility journalists have to carry them forward.
*This is presumably shorthand for, We have one remaining bigotry that is still acceptable among the intelligentsia.
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