Mister Rogers’ Antidote to the Spirit of Party
This summer my wife and I found ourselves at the Fred M. Rogers Center in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, surrounded by bulging bins of VHSs and DVDs, stacked boxes overflowing with old news clippings and Neighborhood memorabilia. There were bright red trolleys and Daniel Striped Tiger facsimiles, Friday the XIII puppets and Mister Rogers bobble heads, folders full of vintage slides and episode notes, crates of old vinyl records, and walls decored with drawings and paintings and posters of Rogers along with several beloved characters from the iconic show from Lady Aberlin to Mr. McFeely.
In the archives was an article by John Silber about politics that he’d sent to Fred about political liberalism and it contained Fred’s handwritten markings and stars accentuating certain passages, a few of which will follow. The article talked about how far we’ve departed from the liberal ideal practiced by Socrates and developed by Milton and Mill. “Socrates taught us to prize those persons of knowledge, candor, and good will who challenge our views, and to be especially grateful when we are shown to be mistaken. For then we exchange a false opinion for a truer one…. It follows that those who seek the truth as closely as is humanly possible will not begin with conclusions and then look for arguments and facts to support them. Rather, they will examine all relevant facts and arguments in the hope of finally arriving at the truest account of the subject of their inquiry….”
Holding fast to any set of doctrines, Silber wrote, without regard to the existence of contravening arguments and evidence is to betray liberalism and cease to be one. “E. B. White provided a useful guide for liberalism: ‘To pursue truth, one should not be too deeply entrenched in any hole.’ Many today who wear their liberalism on their sleeves are far from liberal. The rigidity of their adherence to dogmas exposes them as ideologues.”
Resonating with such ideas despite his political courage, Mister Rogers, in politics as elsewhere, wanted, for the sake of the children he was reaching, to avoid alienating large portions of his audience. He wasn’t without his activist impulses, and he certainly held firm political convictions of his own. Although a lifelong registered Republican, on some issues he slanted to the right, several of his views were moderate, and some quite liberal. In this as in other areas he defied typical classifications. What animated him, though, at a very deep level was bridging divides, bringing people together, despite their differences.
In this way, although Fred had a political party affiliation, and political beliefs of his own, he avoided what George Washington referred to as the “spirit of party,” and in this way (among others) Fred’s voice remains relevant and needed today. In Washington’s Farewell Address he touched on the issue of tendentious partisanship, warning “in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party,” which in the popular form “is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly [the] worst enemy” of governments. “The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
John Adams similarly wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” There may be a suggestion here for the wisdom of more parties than two, but arguably his deeper emphasis is his aversion to that same spirit of party of which Washington warned, which can operate in a system of three or more parties just as well as two.
Strident, divisive partisanship is not political conviction alone, but something more rabid and acidic than that: an ethically bad and intellectually irresponsible ideology that both reflects and deepens cultural divides, contributes to gridlock, bolstering knee-jerk reactions to opposing views, reducing political discourse to resounding zingers, memorable mic drops, and pithy sound bites. But worse than its effects, there’s something inherently problematic about it, and this is where Mister Rogers comes in.
At its worst the spirit of party demonizes the opposition, emphasizing the downright inhumanity of ideological opponents and how worthy of disdain they are. This crosses a line that shouldn’t be crossed; dehumanizing opponents is intrinsically wrong. C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner…. I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.”
David French has recently penned an article about the way partisan hate is becoming a national crisis, citing statistics such as these: 42% of the people in each party view the opposition as “downright evil.” 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans believe “we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.” If the opposing party wins in 2020, 18% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans “feel violence would be justified.” A full fifth of Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human—they behave like animals.” Such statistics and statements potentially predict a troubling tipping point; Washington’s and Adams’ fears were prescient.
There’s actually a biological factor at play here of which we need to be aware. What’s driving much of the outrage among partisans (on both sides) of a certain stripe is that their politics has become visceral. It’s a documented fact that among the most radical of political partisans, the mere mention of politics fires up that portion of their brains that regulates emotions. Studies have been done with people with strongly held beliefs, political and otherwise; when challenged on those beliefs there’s more activation in the parts of the brain that are thought to correspond with self-identity and negative emotions. Ideological attacks are seen as personal insults; those who hold different views induce vociferous emotional responses.
But we are more than biology, and we can learn better how to manage our emotions, which was very much what Fred Rogers was all about. Consider the virtues Fred tried to teach his young viewers: deliberate kindness, intentional listening, looking for what’s best in others, showing unconditional love, respect for others, cultivating patience, forgiving grudges, honoring our neighbors, cultivating empathy, constructive ways to channel our negative emotions, finding the proper locus of our self-identity. Witness a few nasty political conflicts on the internet and one quickly realizes that the same lessons Fred tried inculcating in children are the ones we as adults need to navigate our differences and engage in civil discourse.
In a recent conversation between Princeton’s Robert George and Cornell West, they talked about the dangers of wrapping our emotions too tightly around our pet convictions, which doesn’t conduce to intellectual humility and altogether too easily lends itself both to dogmatism and demonization of opponents. Political disagreements are fine, they stress—they disagree a great deal despite their longstanding friendship—but we must remember the humanity of those with whom we disagree, even if they’ve forgotten their own.
And this is exactly what is particularly distressing, when it rears its head, the denial of our opponents’ humanity—however rhetorically effective it may be at galvanizing zealots to a cause. Rogers resisted employing such strategies and capitulating to the modus operandi of the most rabid idealogues. He knew that the work required to love one’s neighbor as oneself, whether political foe or ally, is real, worth it, and not something we should opt out of. Intentionality neither to exaggerate differences nor to be minimally charitable isn’t privileging merely being nice or likeable over being salt and light. It’s simply what a modicum of decency and civility, not to mention any realistic prospect for productive discourse, requires. It’s not always easy to know what love looks like—there are lots of ways to say “I love you,” after all—but we can know it doesn’t look like hate.
Dehumanization demeans, diminishes, demonizes—and finally silences, ignores, relegates to irrelevance, perhaps even destroys. Rather than recognizing the worth and dignity of our interlocutors, their value and rationality, their humanity and contribution, these are all denigrated if not rejected outright. Denying the humanity or personhood of those whose voices we wish to silence, whose preferences we intend to vitiate, whose desires we want to thwart, whose views we don’t respect, has long been a favored tool of tyranny.
There’s such a thing as moral atrocities, but not every political disagreement qualifies, and we show a low view of morality when we leap at every chance to employ hyperbole and exaggerate differences, constantly going for the jugular and relegating ideological opponents to the trash bin of history. In the process how easy it is to broad-brush, pigeonhole, and stereotype rather than acknowledging the unrepeatable, distinctive, and unique nature of each sacred person we meet.
Rogers held people in too high regard ever to demonize and handily dismiss, and such respectful regard is precisely the needed antidote to the spirit of party that risks tearing our Union asunder. Rather than looking for and assuming the worst in our neighbor, Fred counseled looking for the best. Indulging the former pattern instead, C. S. Lewis warned, is the first step toward becoming devils. It’s “beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”
In a Washington Post opinion piece by Joseph Lieberman from March 21, 2019, he talks about John McCain coming back to Washington in July 2017 to vote against the repeal of Obamacare, a move many roundly criticized. In truth McCain’s vote was squarely against the partisanship that had taken over the Senate and made it into a “feckless, gridlocked, divided place.” As McCain’s speech on that occasion put it, “Our deliberations…are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember…. We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. The times when I was involved even in a modest way with working out a bipartisan response to a national problem or threat are the proudest moments of my career, and by far the most satisfying.”
My wife and I recently visited the Lincoln Memorial there in D. C. Under an expansive canopy of beautiful azure sky on a brilliantly clear day that lent itself to buoyant optimism, I sat on the shining marble steps of the Memorial and couldn’t help but feel hopeful for our country despite the challenges she faces. Inside the edifice were the hallowed words of the Gettysburg Address etched on a stone mural, and eighteen steps down from its apex was the very spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his fabled “I Have a Dream” speech.
Both sets of words were a vivid reminder of the dignity and worth of persons. A resounding, if chastened, subtext of soaring hope comes through in both speeches—no matter how strong the temptation, they didn’t yield to despair. Of course both of them would soon pay the ultimate price for the noble battles they waged, and each knew he might have to. Though they’re gone, they speak to us poignantly still, nearly three score years since King’s immortal speech—as do Washington and Adams—as does Fred Rogers.
Following their lead, resisting the spirit of party, elevating our discourse, respecting the mental freedom of others, living worthy of our callings, daring to hope and resist despair, let’s do the hard work of learning to live, love, and labor with one another. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let’s strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds,” and “do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
With his co-author, Jerry Walls, Dr. Baggett authored Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. The book won Christianity Today’s 2012 apologetics book of the year of the award. He developed two subsequent books with Walls. The second book, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning, critiques naturalistic ethics. The third book, The Moral Argument: A History, chronicles the history of moral arguments for God’s existence. It releases October 1, 2019. Dr. Baggett has also co-edited a collection of essays exploring the philosophy of C.S. Lewis, and edited the third debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew on the resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Baggett currently is a professor at the Rawlings School of Divinity in Lynchburg, VA.