Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Let's Disagree, But Not Hate

Michael J. Gerson


June 17, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Earlier this week, 24,000 pages of emails from Sarah Palin’s time as Alaska governor were released, as a result of a freedom of information request.  Journalists were looking for embarrassing material on a controversial figure.  Hundreds of news organizations combed through every page.  They didn’t find very much. 

The Sarah Palin that emerges from the emails is considerate to her staff.  She takes her faith seriously.  She encouraged her employees to be honest with the media.  She is willing, on occasion, to praise Barack Obama.  She responds quickly to the concerns of her constituents.  The emails show a governor who cares deeply about her state and its people.

This hunt for incriminating material tells us a lot about the press—concerned more about scandal, as usual, than news.  But the absence of scandal teaches another lesson.  We are often too quick to turn disagreement into disdain.

I have sometimes disagreed with Palin’s public style and policy views.  Others have gone much further, turning her into the villainess of a political drama.  She has experienced unfair attacks on her faith and her family. Bloggers have developed elaborate conspiracy theories about her youngest child. Sometimes the hatred of her critics is palpable.  

There is a tendency in American politics to assume that political opponents are also bad and cynical people.  That they are not just wrong, but evil—and evil because they are wrong.  This is the most basic explanation for political polarization in America—the tendency to deny the humanity of people we disagree with.  This is not only dangerous to democracy, it is often badly mistaken. 

The Palin emails reveal a person of good character and public spirit.  In my experience, this is true of many public officials on the right, on the left and in the center.  There are, of course, exceptions.  The Internet activity of Representative Anthony Weiner comes to mind.  But many Americans, conditioned to distrust their politicians, would be surprised by the idealism and good heart of many people in public life. 

I’ve seen the contrast between perception and reality first hand.  There were few public figures more reviled than President George W. Bush.  During the Bush years, one journalist penned an article titled, “The Case for Bush Hatred.”  He was accused of every personal and political vice. 

But I happened to work beside him for about seven years.  Every day I saw a man who was kind and loyal to those around him, committed to his principles and concerned, above all, with protecting the American people.  Many Americans turned disagreement with Bush into hatred.  But they were wrong about the man. 

On Capital Hill, I saw the same thing with many liberal politicians—the ones that conservatives love to hate.  They were often people of deep principle, who treated others with decency. 

Sometimes we just need to check our expectations at the door.  And we must learn to disagree without questioning the motives and character of our opponents.

—Michael Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”