Last Friday evening, I got off the train and walked across the street to a trendy wine bar and Italian restaurant where I was to meet my sister, mother and grandmother for dinner. Once inside, I looked at my phone and realized I was about 20 minutes early and then checked a text message alerting me that the remainder of my party was running about 10 minutes late. Having already plowed through the daily newspaper front to back, and it being the end of the week, I decided to order a glass of wine and zone out for a bit. At the corner of the bar, a group of five men were discussing the constitutionality of the individual mandate of the health care reform law, specifically, the use of the commerce clause. On a normal evening, I’d be watching a news program at home and listening to pundits proliferate their views. Tonight I had a chance to hear what regular citizens thought, so I slid my stool toward the gentlemen and tried hard not to get pegged as an eavesdropper.
By the time I tuned into the conversation, one of the gentlemen was making an argument that defended the constitutionality of the use of the commerce clause to mandate the purchase of health insurance. It was an argument I had heard many times, but the gentleman made it convincingly. “I am legally mandated to own car insurance for my vehicle and no one questions the constitutionality of that,” he said. “What is the difference in regards to health insurance?” (In reality, you are only legally required to carry liability insurance for your vehicle–many people can and do go without collision coverage–but for argument’s sake let’s pretend the situation posed was in fact true.) I wondered, since the man had used a comparison that I had heard before, would one of his friends use the retort to this argument that I had also heard before? Sure enough, as soon as the question was asked, a man in his party with a diverging opinion said, “There is no law requiring you to own a vehicle, therefore the situation is not tantamount to the law requiring that you own health insurance.” Point made, point countered. Nicely done.
The conversation moved on from there and they began talking about organized labor and the incredible debt that the state of New Jersey has racked up. This is a very divisive issue in the state, and I have seen it pit family member against family member. I was wondering what kind of eroding effect it was going to have on the level of civility and self-control this debate had managed to maintain since I started listening. Two of the men were members of unions and three of the men were not; they all shared their personal stories of how this recession had affected their fortunes, and they blamed the parties that they thought were responsible. I waited for tempers to flare, for words like “socialist” and “fascist” to be thrown around, for the Iraq war to somehow get dug up and tossed into this, and for phrases like “greedy Neocon warmonger” and “elitist, NPR-listening liberal” to be exchanged. I knew it was on the verge of happening; I had seen arguments among, friends, colleagues, pundits and family members take this ominous turn so many times before.
Nothing happened. Smiles remained on faces, voices remained steady and low, insults were nowhere to be found and most shocking of all, not one person interrupted the other while they were making their point. I quickly realized that intelligent and respectful debate among people with different viewpoints is possible today. Contrary to what we see coming out of the mouths of our elected officials and cable news hosts, people are able to discuss the issues without resorting to name-calling, eye-rolling, and interruptions. The rest of the country should take a page out of these guys’ book. Then maybe the issues will take the forefront rather than unbridled emotion. Then, maybe we can figure out a solution to all of these challenges that works for everyone