Seeking Good Intentions From Your Opponents | Opinion

The core of our present predicament isn't that rabid partisans disagree over political programs—that's normal and healthy for a vibrant democracy. The toxic aspect of today's polarization is that the two sides question each other's fundamental decency, not just their governing agendas.

That problem became clear to me during a recent "Anti-Vax Rally" in our Washington state capitol of Olympia. The impassioned crowd of nearly a thousand not only yelled against the governor's aggressive mandate to promote inoculation, but also cheered for every loyal believer who pledged to sacrifice a job rather than succumb to a jab. They treated every such expression of fervent commitment as a noble, sacrificial act on behalf of the public good, as if resisting the recommendations of the state's leading health authorities somehow served the interests of their unsuspecting neighbors.

Of course, the unvanquished and unvaccinated insist that their protests defend the cause of personal liberty, asserting that no malignant government power has the right to violate their personal autonomy. But it's hard to see how defiant unvaccinated individuals deserve all the lusty applause. Without widespread vaccination, the pandemic will either rage into the indefinite future (no ground for anyone's applause) or else will continue to abate due the very public health strategies the anti-vaxxer true believers decry.

Meanwhile, on all sides the angry activists question not only the actions, but the intentions, of their opponents—as if the health care establishment needed to administer billions more inoculations in order to assert its already vast power; or as if the vaccine-resistant risked jobs, health and life entirely under the influence of conspiracists and snake-oil peddlers.

Under these circumstances, compromise and collaboration become unthinkable, even traitorous. As recently as the Reagan era, politicians of every faction could share a broad consensus on the goals they wanted for the country, but still fight ferociously over how best to get there. Most of those in public office seek similar blessings for the voters who elected them—peace, prosperity, security, opportunity, respect. These benevolent common goals kept the nation together and facilitated compromise, even in the midst of toxic personal rivalries and angry ideological combat.

The obvious departure from this familiar pattern makes our era unique in its paranoia, cynicism and vitriolic intensity. In place of old disputes about seeking the right means for constructive ends, we now battle over whether the other side has any valid aims at all, or whether they seek only to dominate our present and betray our past. In our dueling narratives, the loudest voices don't stop with challenging the judgment of the opposition, but insist on discrediting their aims and character.

On the issue of gun regulation, for instance, the Left caricatures all defenders of the Second Amendment as insecure obsessives drawn to violence and insurrection. Meanwhile, the Right dismisses those who back even moderate reform as determined "gun grabbers" seeking to erase our constitutional right to bear arms.

Anti-vaccine mandate protest
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: Anti-vaccine protesters stage a protest outside of the San Diego Unified School District office to protest a forced vaccination mandate for students on September 28, 2021 in San Diego, California. The School District was holding a virtual hearing on whether to enact a mandate for students to receive at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

When it comes to abortion, pro-choice activists and advocates see the opposition as religious extremists and theocrats who want to model our world after the fictional dystopia of The Handmaid's Tale. At the same time, tens of millions of pro-lifers see their opponents as callous baby-killers who hope to use abortion to undermine marriage and faith.

On immigration, there is plenty of middle ground. Few radicals on any side actually support either mass deportations or open borders. But Democrats still see nefarious racist purposes in those who demand more border security, and many Republicans view even limited advocacy of a path to citizenship for the undocumented as an effort to mint millions of new left-leaning voters to cement permanent liberal control.

In these and many other controversies, the media, pressure groups and ambitious politicians devote at least as much attention to their opposition's alleged bad intentions as they formerly focused on their bad ideas. In an era of close elections, outcomes are often determined by one's ability to inspire enthusiastic turnouts from one's own partisans. Campaigners find it easier to motivate loyalists by scaring them about what happens if the other guy wins, than by trying to inspire them about what happens if their candidate prevails. No wonder so many otherwise thoughtful patriots repeat the tired mantra "this is the most important election in our history," and insist that if a particular candidate comes to power, it would mean the end of democracy, or liberty, or civilization or all of the above.

A better approach? To keep in mind an ancient, Bible-based Jewish teaching that made a profound impression on me as a teenager, when I first became seriously involved in politics.

In Ethics of the Fathers—a brief but widely studied volume of the Talmud—scholars nearly 2,000 years ago suggested: "Judge every person favorably. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt." This has become a common Hebrew saying: "Dan l'kaf zechut," or "Judge others to their credit."

In other words, if your neighbor does something foolish and destructive, don't automatically seize on the worst possible explanation for his actions. Strain to find the most favorable, most generous means to evaluate even behavior you may rightly despise.

As applied to our current bitter arguments about vaccine and mask mandates: instead of writing off resistant citizens as ignorant, irrational or shaped by conspiracist delusions, why not address the unvaccinated as patriots who mean to defend their concept of personal liberty by standing up against governmental intrusion? Concerning the other side's resentment of vaccine enthusiasts, skeptics could elevate our public discourse by avoiding insults to public health officials (such as Dr. Anthony Fauci), treating them not as power-mad bureaucrats who distort the truth for their own aggrandizement, but as dedicated public servants who devoted their lives to healing the sick and protecting the healthy. You may not feel wholly comfortable in embracing such generous views of those with whom you disagree, but making an effort in that direction can uplift the quality of your own life and conversation.

Ancient Jewish sages recognized the rewards of "judging others in their favor." The Rabbis of the Talmud frequently stressed the idea that "if you judge others generously, the Almighty will be favorable to you." Contemporary politicos might keep in mind that looking for good intentions, not bad intentions, from those you oppose may also bring more generous judgment to you—from God, and even from the voters.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.