The first time I visited the campus of Duke University, I did so because Rand Paul asked me to.
It was during the 1988 presidential election. Like many conservative and libertarian students of the day, my friends and I at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were looking for a leader to follow in the footsteps of the president we all revered, Ronald Reagan. The GOP primary field was full of impressive candidates such as Vice President George Bush, U.S. Senator Bob Dole, U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, and former Delaware Gov. Pete Du Pont.
Most of us preferred Du Pont or Kemp. After it became obvious in March 1988 that Bush would get the nomination, some young Reaganites were dissatisfied enough to consider voting for the Libertarian nominee that year, former Republican Congressman Ron Paul. That’s what his son Rand, then a medical student at Duke, was counting on. Knowing of the student magazine we had founded at UNC, called The Carolina Critic, Rand contacted us to invite the staff to come see his father speak at the Duke law school.
I don’t think many of us were persuaded to vote for Congressman Paul, whose foreign-policy views were not to our liking. But we welcomed learning more about him and the libertarian movement, just as we enjoyed sparring with liberals on our own campus — and with each other on the issues that divided libertarian-leaning conservatives from social conservatives. We were confident enough in our own opinions to test them in robust debate. But we also kept open the possibility that we might be mistaken on a particular issue, and that the only way to find that out was to engage those with differing views.
Why did we approach politics that way? Because we loved Ronald Reagan, and that’s the kind of leader he was to us. He was confident but not arrogant, serious in his convictions but full of light and humor in his interactions with Republicans and Democrats alike.
I’m currently spending a week as a “practitioner in residence” at Duke, alongside former Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation executive director Leslie Winner. We are speaking to classes, meeting with faculty, sitting down for interviews, and co-leading a seminar for students on civil discourse.
Leslie and I differ in many ways, both ideological and professional. She is an attorney who served several terms in the North Carolina Senate. I have never held public office, and began my career as a journalist covering local governments in eastern North Carolina. But we have something important in common. We share a concern that the political debate has become coarsened and impoverished — more a series of partisan shibboleths and personal attacks than a free, robust, and informative exchange of sincerely held but contrasting opinions.
After some initial conversations about this during the fall of 2014, Leslie and I decided to collaborate on a solution. Influencing the national conversation was beyond our capabilities, but modeling a better way to discuss political differences in our own state was not. Working with Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and others, we founded the North Carolina Leadership Forum, which recruits leaders from across the state — representing a variety of communities, professions, and points of view — to discuss tough issues in a setting that encourages not just the expression of competing opinions but also active listening to those opinions.
From both sides of the partisan spectrum, our project has been attacked as a dangerous distraction from the critical task of “winning.” The Left views Republicans as not just mistaken but evil. Conservatives often view Democrats the same way. What’s more important than making sure “those people” lose power and “our people” keep it?
In my view, such objections miss the point. Learning about why others disagree with you is hardly an impediment to achieving political victories. Nor is learning how to disagree without being an obnoxious jackass. Ronald Reagan knew better, and I understand he may have achieved some success during his political career.