Near the end of the Roman Republic, factionalism gripped the city. Those in favor of one candidate or another would quite literally fight in the streets, shedding blood. When those that disagreed could no longer sit down and talk, the death knell for the Republic tolled.
History has a lot to teach us. The Romans had forgotten how democracy worked: the city began to believe that it was about fighting one’s opponents -- defeating them, crushing them, making sure the opponent’s turnout was lower than one's own. In their case, that meant intimidating people, or breaking kneecaps to make it harder to get to the ballot. Or it meant killing, to make it really hard to get to the ballot.
Today, even in our more seemingly civic appeals, our instructions are directed toward winning. We are implored to go vote. Sometimes we are even asked to educate ourselves before voting. That’s what we call “engagement.”
It’s certainly better than fighting each other in the streets. But it’s still a matter of simple warfare: who can get the most people to head out to the polls?
This mindset often infects our so-called political “dialogue.” When we share social media memes about how stupid our opponents are, or about some injustice we’re outraged about, or some lone out-of-context statistic, we are rallying our troops. We’re energizing them, reminding them of the dangers of inaction. When we “unfriend” someone for their political positions, or use social pressure to make sure nobody around us disagrees with us openly, we’re squeezing out our opponents.
It’s all predicated on the assumption that political views are fixed, and we simply need to make sure we rally those that agree with us, and squeeze out those that disagree.
This presents a terrible dilemma for those in a minority--especially a significant minority. We’re taught quite thoroughly how to be indignant, how to be angry, how to “vote or die,” and whatnot. But when we are in the minority, we feel quite threatened by the state of things: we just don’t have anything close to enough votes to create the change we want.
So what do we do?
It seems we’ve forgotten the simple math: if you want something done in a modern democracy, you generally need a majority of people to agree with you (there are some exceptions, but they are rare).
If you don’t have that majority, then you need to build it.
And building a majority requires convincing people that disagree with you to change their minds.
Call us crazy, but that’s how the math seems to be adding up for us.
This is not an appeal for “civil dialogue” because it’s the “right thing to do.” This isn’t an appeal for decency or politeness or sacrificing one’s chances in an election for the greater good.
We entreat you simply to be effective. Do you want a certain policy or change in government? Then convince the people that disagree with you to agree with you.
This isn’t easy, but luckily, convincing others is already a skill we use to get everything else we want in life.
We’ve simply, somehow, forgotten to use it in our democracy.