For Joshua Johnson, the host of 1A, an NPR talk show inspired by the First Amendment, Americans can better thrive despite their differences and disagreements by taking inspiration from the courageous lead character in a modern classic.
“In Westside story, our Romeo, Tony, intervenes in a fight between two gangs who are literally ready to rumble with an all out, knock down, drag out, winner-takes-all fight,” he recounted. “Tony convinces them to replace the rumble with a fair fight: the best two brawlers from each gang would duke it out.” He sees himself in an analogous role.
“My job as the host of 1A is basically what Tony did in Westside story,” he explained. “To convince people to stop rumbling and just fight fair. If we don't do that, our democracy is in trouble.” He understands the contrary temptations and risks. “A good rumble feels good,” he acknowledged. “It feels good to see somebody take down those SOBs who you blame for all the problems in this country.”
And Tony’s plan was ruined “when the gang leaders fell back on their old ways, pulled out their knives, and killed themselves.” Still, he persisted in his exhortation:
Democracy is a contact sport. Everyone gets bruises. Even the winners. And the kind of bickering we see today is not only unproductive.
If you don't have the guts to focus on ideas and stop tearing down individuals, you belong in the stands, not on the field. I want more leaders who are brave enough to focus on ideas and not ad hominem attacks. I want more leaders who are willing to say, “I hate everything she stands for, but I do not hate her. And neither should you."
And I want more Americans who demand these kinds of debates for the sake of our democracy. Just ideas against ideas, let them fight it out, and if you lose, come back with better ideas.
Tony was right. A rumble can be clenched by a fair fight if you've got the guts to risk that. Are millions of Americans ready to start fighting fair for the sake of our democracy? For the sake of solving common problems we all face?
Listening to those remarks Sunday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, I shared the speaker’s frustration with attacks on people rather than ideas, which pervade so much of today’s political discourse.