Opinion: Why Can't We Just Disagree?

What if we each took the responsibility, individually, to take hypocrisy and contempt out of our discussions about the presidential and Congressional campaigns this year? How much would that change the conversation?

As the campaign goes on and the national conventions get closer, I’m wondering why so many intelligent people seem incapable of debating the issues without criticizing the candidates on personal grounds, or mocking the values of their political opponents.

I’m tired, for example, of the personal attacks on Mitt Romney related to his wealth or religion. When I pointed out to a Democrat friend recently that John F. Kennedy was criticized on precisely the same grounds in 1960, I was told “this is different.” But my friend could not explain how it’s different.

I keep hearing the argument that Romney is unfit for the presidency because, with an estimated net worth of $250 million, he is “out of touch” with common people, whose problems he could not possibly begin to understand. The next time a friend or acquaintance makes that argument, I plan to ask whether he or she opposed the candidacy of John Kerry (net worth $232 million according to CNN/Money) on the same grounds.

During the Olympics, I heard more than once that Ann Romney's ownership of a horse in the dressage event was further evidence that the Republican candidate’s family is far removed from the reality of most Americans. As opposed, I assume, to the family of Kerry, whose wife, Theresa Heinz, has a net worth of her own that was estimated at $1 billion by Forbes magazine.

I have no objection to Kerry’s wealth, or to Al Gore’s for that matter (net worth $100 million according to CNBC); I voted for both men. But I do object to the fact that many, many people who have voted for one Democrat millionaire after another now argue that Romney’s wealth is a disqualification.

I’ve also heard Mormonism repeatedly described as a cult by liberals, while conservatives argue that Mormons (members, that is, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) are somehow not Christian. Maybe Mormons are a cult, but are they any crazier than those Catholics who believe in the virgin birth of Jesus?

The hypocrisy that bothers me extends beyond the candidates and the parties, to encompass entire classes of people. I am losing patience, for example, with so-called progressives who mock voters who don’t support gay marriage or abortion rights. It hardly seems tolerant for people who consider themselves open-minded to dismiss as ignorant, or bigoted, anybody whose sense of morality does not match their own. Many of my acquaintances are too quick to assume that people who don’t support liberal social values are stupid, evil, or both. And those conservatives who label everybody who disagrees with them as unpatriotic, or socialist, are equally offensive.

This country would certainly be a boring and less vibrant place if we all agreed. But it has apparently become impossible for us to disagree without engaging in hypocritical, personal denunciations of anybody whose point of view differs from our own. We ought to be able to debate the real issues without resorting to such tactics.