Real debate begins with real listening

Published on Tuesday, 15 April 2014 21:42 - Written by

Is this the beginning of a real debate? The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has written about the Republicans and poverty without assuming the worst motives on the part of the GOP. He evaluates their ideas honestly, and comes to the conclusions that they’re right about a lot of things.

It’s a refreshing admission from the left, in an era of supposed “wars” on the poor and women.

“Republicans may seem like ultimate Scrooges,” Kristof wrote last week. “Many want to slash food stamps, unemployment benefits and just about any program that helps the needy. So they know nothing about poverty, right? Wrong. Actually, conservatives have been proved right about three big ideas of social policy.”

Kristof doesn’t automatically assume that Republicans hate the poor. In fact, he acknowledges that conservatives simply have different answers to universally acknowledged problems.

“Conservatives highlight the primacy of family and argue that family breakdown exacerbates poverty, and they’re right,” Kristof wrote. “Children raised by single parents are three times as likely to live in poverty as kids in two-parent homes. One historic mistake by liberals in social policy was the condemnation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warning in 1965 of the breakdown of the African-American family. He wasn’t racist; he was prescient, for the same breakdown has since occurred in white-working-class families as well.”

Republicans are also right about job creation, he continued.

“President Reagan was right when he said that the best social program is a job. Good jobs also strengthen families,” he wrote. “Evidence has grown that jobs are important not only to our economic well-being but also to self-esteem. Indeed, long-term unemployment seems to lead to shortened life expectancy.”

And the right is right about education reform, he added.

“Republicans were right to blow the whistle on broken school systems, for education in inner-city schools is the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” Kristof wrote. “Democrats, in cahoots with teachers’ unions and protective of a dysfunctional system, were long part of the problem. Bravo to Republicans for protesting that teachers’ unions were sometimes protecting disastrous teachers.”

Of course, Kristof says Republicans are wrong about specific solutions — for example, he says marriage promotion efforts and abstinence-only sex education have largely failed (the evidence is mixed at best). He says that welfare-to-work programs of the 1990s mostly led the poor to low-wage jobs that didn’t leave them much better off.

What’s truly significant here is that Kristof has started a real dialogue. When Democrats portray Republican ideas as nothing but “get off my porch” policies, and ascribe the worst, most selfish motives to the GOP, no real discussion can follow. The well has been poisoned.

But when the left and right can sit down, agree on what the problem is, and then look for solutions based on evidence, everyone can move forward.

It’s not just the Democrats, of course. Republicans do the same thing, when discussing other issues.

But Kristof should be commended for giving “respectful consideration” of Republican ideas. He doesn’t agree with the GOP, but at least he’s listening.