Election Day reminds us about deep political divisions. A high-profile diplomat’s recent speech in Durham should remind us to place our political disagreements in the proper perspective.
“I urge you to remember that your political opponents are not your enemies, and they are not evil. They’re just your opponents. Take it from me: There’s a big difference.”
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley uttered those words as part of her April 5 Duke University lecture titled “Confronting Today’s Global Governance Challenges.” Amid commentary about the American government’s approach toward the world’s worst rogue regimes, Haley devoted a few minutes to domestic political squabbles. The former Republican South Carolina governor aimed her remarks directly at people considering careers in public service.
“In South Carolina I had political battles with other officials who I disagreed with,” Haley told her audience. “Some were in the other party. Some were in my own party. We had real differences about what was best for our state and her people — mostly on taxes, spending, and the role of government.”
Those differences should sound familiar if you have been watching, listening to, and reading political ads in recent weeks. Haley contrasted those “political battles” with her current job.
“At the United Nations I’m butting heads on a near-daily basis with people who represent actual tyrants — governments that imprison, torture, and even kill innocent people,” she said. “I sit across the negotiating table from representatives of regimes that commit genocide, governments that starve their own people to fund illegal weapons programs, and dictators who use the torture of children as a political weapon.
“This is an important distinction for all of us to keep in mind. Real leadership is bringing people around to your point of view by showing them how it is in their best interest to do so. But we’re losing this skill today. We’re focused on our differences, rather than what brings us together.”
Treating every political disagreement as an opportunity to fight hurts our ability to negotiate, compromise, and develop solutions. That can lead us toward gridlock, even when all parties agree a problem exists and must be addressed.
“Instead of trying to understand our political opponents, we too often write them off as not even fit to have a conversation with,” Haley said.
Making the career move from Columbia, S.C., to Manhattan’s Turtle Bay has helped Haley view political confrontation in a different light.
“In the last year, working in depth in foreign relations, I have seen true evil,” she said. “And it’s not in the American political system.
“In South Sudan, where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war, that is evil,” Haley said. “In Syria, where the dictator uses chemical weapons to murder innocent children, that is evil. In North Korea, where the depraved regime forces its own citizens into slave labor and tortures American student Otto Warmbier to death, that is evil.
“But American politics is not the international arena,” Haley said.
Partisans of all political stripes could learn from Haley. Those on the political right might be inclined to view their foes as proponents of some form of reheated communism. (Recent praise among some progressives for Karl Marx on his 200th birthday doesn’t help to dispel those fears.)
But, in most cases, well-meaning policymakers and pundits on the political left believe that their policy preferences will improve Americans’ lives. They are not trying to push the country toward Friedrich Hayek’s “road to serfdom.”
On the other hand, conservatives who focus on boosting government’s “bang for the buck” do not represent the second coming of Adolf Hitler. Left-of-center partisans do nothing to promote productive debate when they yell “racism” or “sexism” every time an opponent talks about limiting tax or regulatory burdens.
It’s fortunate for this state that key thinkers on the political left and right already recognize a distinction between opponents and enemies. Programs like the North Carolina Leadership Forum focus on improving the level of political discourse.
Rather than the constant flow of “partisan cheerleading, shouting matches, and online snark” described by the forum’s early backer John Hood, the forum hopes to steer policymakers toward more constructive dialogue — even when that dialogue produces disagreement.
Let’s hope Ambassador Haley’s recent visit helps bolster those efforts.
As we recover from primary election battles and prepare for the tussles of the upcoming legislative session, it will be useful to remember that political opponents are just opponents, not enemies.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.