Better disagreement makes American democracy better

Learn more about Chris Walsh.
Chris Walsh
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

Spencer Cox, the Republican Governor of Utah launched the Disagree Better Initiative last week after taking over as the Chair of the National Governors Association (NGA). He is supported in this effort by NGA Vice Chair Jared Polis, the Democratic Governor of Colorado. The two governors appeared in a video promoting the importance of “healthy disagreement” for our country. They chose a familiar “battleground” – the dining table – and offered ways to “save your family dinners” through better engagement and disagreement with your “MAGA uncle” or “woke niece.”  

Why this matters: Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations, recently identified polarization as the biggest threat facing our Nation. He believes its effects are felt most acutely in Congress, resulting in a general inability to get things done and allowing mean-spiritedness to pervade the institution.  

Our democratic system, with its separation of powers, was designed for deliberation, negotiation, and persuasion. That becomes significantly more challenging when our leaders demonstrate contempt for political opponents. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the past decade of increasing polarization coincides with some of Congress’ lowest sustained job approval ratings since 1975.  

It’s also critically important that Governors Cox and Polis modeled principled leadership on better disagreement. In the era of social media and cable news, it seems fictitious when political leaders tell us that it’s OK to disagree and that we should do so in a way that doesn’t demonize others. What may surprise you is that the “exhausted majority” of Americans support this approach. Persuading others to do so will likely be difficult. Still, it matters that prominent state executives are willing to publicly lead on this issue.  

Bottom line: We live in a country of more than 330 million people. As my colleague Bill McKenzie and I wrote in The Pluralism Challenge series, you can’t force Americans to agree. In fact, liberal democracies like the United States rightfully encourage differences of opinion and the formation of groups with varying worldviews. And those are good things provided there are legal safeguards like the Bill of Rights which protect individual and minority rights.  

A commitment to pluralism – social tolerance for individuals or groups who have different backgrounds, views, or beliefs – is the best way for us to peacefully coexist and navigate the tensions between our shared democratic values and myriad differences. A willingness to engage (which does not mean compromising beliefs) with those who think differently and respectful disagreement are vital to maintaining a free society. Alternatives to pluralism only lead our Nation down the path of violence and authoritarianism.  

To be crystal clear, though, disagreeing better is not code for kumbaya togetherness or imposing groupthink. It’s exactly what the phrase says, finding ways to engage with opponents and debate differences in a more productive way.