The New York Public Library hosted an event Saturday dedicated to what seems, in our day and age, a far-fetched goal: civil dialogue across partisan and ideological lines.
The symposium, “Shades of Red and Blue,” was co-sponsored by American and international groups, in partnership with the British daily, The Guardian. It featured novelist Salman Rushdie, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, and former Princeton University dean and Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter on panels that discussed topics ranging from White House politics to national security to immigration to the media and the “fake news” problem.
Not surprisingly, the Trump presidency dominated the discussion — with former Richard Nixon counsel John Dean providing analogies to another turbulent presidency. But political polarization, and the divide between “middle America” and the “cultural elites,” was a central topic as well.
On the morning panel, John Podhoretz, editor of the conservative Commentary magazine, noted that in the 1980s and 1990s, he used to say that conservatives were “bilingual” — they spoke the language of the conservative movement but also the language of the more mainstream liberal culture and understood liberal thinking — while liberals tended to be more “monolingual.” Today, he said, things have changed: a conservative can easily stay in his or her own niche and have little understanding of liberals. Veteran liberal journalist Hendrik Hertzberg, a writer at The New Yorker, agreed. “The right and the left no longer touch each other across a no man’s land,” he said.
Did the elites misunderstand and wrongly condescend to Trump voters? The question repeatedly came up, causing some fireworks at times, with the partisan lines not always predictable. Anti-Trump Republican, author and Naval War College professor Thomas Nichols, author of the new book, “The Death of Expertise,” was a strong proponent of the view that the Trump voters’ populist grievances stem largely from ignorance — a “shallow understanding of foreign policy” and a failure to grasp the ways in which they themselves benefit economically from globalization. This caused some sharp exchanges between Nichols and Bard College foreign affairs professor Walter Russell Mead; Mead argued that the widespread sense among Americans that working hard and playing by the rules are no longer tickets to a good life is rooted in real social and economic shifts.
There was more spirited debate on the media panel, where conservative journalists Mollie Hemingway and Matthew Continetti argued that declining trust in the media is due largely to the media’s political biases and insufficient commitment to truth and accuracy. The liberal panelists Rushdie and Bard College president Leon Botstein focused on “the post-truth environment” promoted by the Trump White House, which Rushdie called “the source from which all untruth flows.”
Hemingway’s assertion that the media largely gave Barack Obama a pass while leaping at every instance of Republican misbehavior got loud applause from a small portion of the audience but was disputed by Rushdie and Botstein; but in the end, there seemed to be a fair amount of agreement with Hemingway’s suggestion that mainstream media should get more input on how their coverage looks to conservatives, if only from a “devil’s advocate” standpoint. Rushdie still got the biggest applause for saying that “we’ll have to work very hard to get the American people to believe in truth again.”
It will take hard work to get the American people to talk to each other across the “no man’s land” of the political divide again. The forum was a good start that should be emulated.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.