Tomorrow evening, President Obama will convene both houses of Congress for his fifth State of the Union address. As with election nights, debate nights and those long, heady weeks when our two major parties hold their quadrennial conventions, tempers are bound to run hotter than usual.
There is a tendency in politics to demonize those who dare to disagree with your conception of right and wrong. Research by New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt – a self-described liberal – has found that tendency to be stronger among people who are left of center than among people who are right of center. As the blog Volokh Conspiracy noted in a recent post, liberals often find it inconceivable that a person could be both conservative and moral, because their definition of morality is narrower than their counterparts' across the aisle. Consequently, lefties are much harder on the other side. Per Volokh, "Conservatives think that liberals are good people with bad ideas, whereas liberals think conservatives are bad people."
As a free-market champion, I see this all the time. Friends and sparring partners with progressive worldviews assume there's one and only one reason to favor, say, reducing taxes on capital: a desire to protect the rich and punish the poor, whom we clearly hate. But in fact, many conservatives and libertarians believe lower taxes on investment income incentivize risk taking, which in turn leads to a flourishing private sector that creates better (and better paying!) jobs at the bottom end of the income spectrum. As macroeconomist Garrett Jones explains, increasing capital taxes is one of the worst things a ruling class can do for the less fortunate.
With the president expected to make a renewed push in his speech for an increase in the federal minimum wage, it seems likely that many liberals will default to the assumption that anyone who opposes such a policy is callous or motivated by disdain for the poor. This is a stingy and naïve view of the world. It is also the lazy way out: Assuming the worst about your opponents means you can dismiss their position without having to engage with them on its merits.
As we wade deeper into this mid-term election year, the opportunity to have an almost limitless array of important national conversations will present itself. None of them can happen if the political left begins by insisting conservatives are acting out of malice instead of out of a genuine desire to make America as prosperous and free as possible – as God gives them to see it.