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Political Respect And Political Charity

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by Cass Sunstein
A while back, there was some brief discussion here of the idea of political charity. Several people have responded that it might be better to speak of respect, not charity. It might be worthwhile to untangle the two ideas.

The antonym of respect is disdain or (better) contempt; the antonym of charity is selfishness or (better) stinginess. It is much worse to be disrespectful than to be uncharitable. Politicians who show respect--Senator McCain is a good example--tend not to attack the competence, the motivations, or the defining commitments of those who disagree with him. Politicians who show charity as well as respect--Senator Obama is a rare example--tend to put opposing arguments in the best possible form, to praise the motivations of those who offer such arguments, and to seek proposals that specifically accept the defining commitments of all sides.

In constitutional law, we can find a form of respect in rulings that attract support from a range of possible foundations. The Court might rule, for example, that the most aggressive affirmative action programs are invalid, without committing itself to a principle of color-blindness. Or the Court can protect political dissent without identifying the foundations of the free speech principle, and without indicating whether that principle also protects commercial advertising, libel, or obscenity. In his style, and in his tendency to rule narrowly and unambitiously, Justice Powell was highly respectful. Some of the Court's justices show charity, not merely respect; Justice Harlan (the great conservative on the Warren Court) is a good example. (Needless to say, there are circumstances in which disdain and contempt are justified, and in which charity is not.)

Emerging work on "cultural cognition" suggests that many citizens strongly react to some simple cultural cues; they pick up on such cues to see if a candidate is a certain cultural type (eg, a pro-market type or a supporter of traditional cultural values). If a candidate shows or is taken to show disdain or contempt for certain cultural commitments, there will be big trouble; Republican campaign officials have worked hard and often successfully to create such trouble for Democratic candidates. Respect and charity are sometimes political liabilities, but they do reduce the risk of that trouble, and for both parties, it is reasonable to think that they will be real assets in 2008.

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