Apparently while President Obama was in Iowa last month, he interviewed author Marilynne Robinson. You can read (or listen to) the first half of that interview via The New York Review of Books. The second half will be published in their next issue.

I was particularly struck by two things Robinson said. First of all, Obama asked her why she’d recently written an essay on the topic of fear.

But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?…because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

The idea that “the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people” is profound…maybe even a bit disturbing. Think about it for a moment. What if we had to assume that those we disagree with politically were basically trying to do the right thing rather than being the “sinister other” out to destroy our country? Is that really what democracy requires?

I am reminded of what Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope.

I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.

Robinson is suggesting that – in a democracy – we are required to come together to work out our differences. If we simply write each other off by saying that those we disagree with are “sinister others,” we can’t have that conversation…and democracy is lost.

Here is the second thing Robinson said that is equally provocative. She was responding to the President talking about how the common sense of people throughout the country is so at odds with the mean-spiritedness of our politics.

I think one of the things that is true is that many Americans on every side of every issue, they think that the worst thing they can say is the truest thing, you know?

At first, I didn’t know exactly what she was saying and worried this was some statement (ala Ben Carson) about the problem of political correctness. But here’s what she said when President Obama asked her to explain:

Well, for example—I mean, I’m a great admirer of American education. And I’ve traveled [to] universities everywhere. And they’re very impressive. They are very much loved by people who identify with them. You meet faculty and they’re very excited about what they’re doing; students that are very excited, and so on.

And then you step away and you hear all this stuff about how the system is failing and we have to pull it limb from limb, and the rest of it. And you think, have you walked through the door? Have you listened to what people say? Have you taught in a foreign university?

We have a great educational system that is—it’s really a triumph of the civilization. I don’t think there’s anything comparable in history. And it has no defenders. Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.

When you hear something like that it is easy to point to conservatives who fear-monger about how the world is on fire and we are being invaded by hoards of Mexicans and Muslims. But it’s not simply a matter of false equivalency to acknowledge that liberals get caught up in focusing on the crazy things Republicans say or dwelling on the intractability of the problems we face. A perfect example of what she is talking about was the push-back Keith Humphreys got from liberal activists when he celebrated the fact that admissions to prisons were finally declining. And we wonder why people are so pessimistic, angry and cynical?

These are hard things Robinson is talking about. To absorb what she’s saying means going against the political tide as it is currently rolling in this country. I – for one – am grateful for the provocation.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.