As The Intramuralist guest writers continue through the month of August, today we wrap up a 4-part series exploring the reasons for the partisan gridlock in Washington and why each side talks about the other as evil, in search of mutual respect and a bipartisan path forward. If you’re just catching this entry, reviewing the previous installments – The Great Divide, Why One Would Choose to be Liberal, and Why One Would Choose to be Conservative – would be a helpful foundation. We are now In Search of Common Ground.
I began this escapade not knowing if I could complete it – certainly with no predetermined conclusions – but this exercise has provided a number of observations that have influenced my political worldview:
First of all, we itemized lists of extremist groups that choose to associate themselves with each side, socialists, militant atheists, moral relativists, and race baiters for the liberals, racists, anarchists, religious zealots, and materialists for the conservatives.
This brought my first observation: neither side describes themselves in those terms. You don’t hear liberals talking about abolishing capitalism or morality, just as you don’t hear conservatives promoting discrimination or theocracy. Each side tries to define the other as extremist. Why? Because if you believe your core values are threatened by the other side, you’re more inclined to write a check and get involved.
What should we do? Whenever one side talks about the other in extreme terms, stop listening.
Secondly, we explored a number of single issues that motivate some to vote one way or the other. In every case, the right answer is somewhere in between:
Environment vs. Business – Which do we need, a productive economy or to take care of the environment? The obvious answer is both.
Abortion – This is a tough one for those who believe any abortion is taking a life. But there is also no excuse for the abhorrent practice of partial-birth abortion. I’m comfortable with Bill Clinton’s declaration, “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.”
Guns – The right to own a gun is clearly in The Constitution. And there is absolutely no need for people to arm themselves with weapons whose only purpose is mass murder.
The right answers? In the middle, in the middle, and in the middle.
Then we examined the reasons one might choose to be liberal or conservative. The goal was not to prove ourselves right, but to understand the other. These analyses made clear that each persuasion has legitimate motivations for seeing the world as they do. So again, the right answer very well may be to combine the best of both rather than striving for one side to defeat the other.
But another observation bubbled to the top: liberals want the government to control economic outcomes, but stay out of our private lives, while conservatives want the government to stay out of the economy, but are far more comfortable legislating morality.
Are those even consistent philosophies? One begins to wonder if there truly are sets of core principles guiding each side, or are both simply cabbaging together collections of special interest positions in hopes that they add up to 51% of the electorate? For the left, democratic socialism, a progressive tax structure, gay rights, pro-choice, gun control, affirmative action, and social welfare. For the right, capitalism, tax incentives, evangelicals, pro-life, gun rights, reverse discrimination, and business. What do those positions even have in common? Who represents the common good?
And what would that common ground look like?
First of all, our government is out of control. We are $19 trillion in debt. It doubled under W., and it doubled again under Obama. Which means it’s growing not at a steady pace, but at a geometric rate. Like a virus.
We’re not going to fix that on the backs of poor people. Nor would we fix it if we took every dollar from “The 1%.” We’re not going to fix it by cutting all social programs, nor by not touching them. Nor can we fix it by continuing to write blank checks to the military.
Congress is sticking their heads in the sand pretending Medicare and Social Security have any hope of surviving the tsunami of Baby Boomers reaching retirement age. Rather than fix them, they keep playing politics, pointing fingers at the other side, saying they’re out to get you.
The same games are played with taxes. The politicians keep arguing about tax rates, arguing over who is favoring the rich or engaging in class warfare. But what matters is tax revenue, how many dollars are collected. It’s possible that lowering tax rates – with the appropriate closing of tax loopholes – would increase tax revenue, which would be good for everyone.
It is a fact, the rich and the poor are getting farther apart. There are those who could afford to pay more. But we can’t turn around and spend it, otherwise we just dig ourselves into a deeper hole. And entitlements need to be reformed so they don’t incentivize not working. Right now there are flat dollar amounts that once you exceed them by a single dollar, you lose your entire benefit. You simply can’t afford to do that. We’ve got to make it so it is always in your best interest to work and earn more.
On social issues, it is completely understandable why a homosexual wants equal rights. It is also completely understandable why a person who believes that homosexual acts are sinful would be reluctant to grant them. This country is a beacon to the entire world that all men and women were created equal, both the homosexual and the evangelical. We’ve got to find a way to give the homosexual equal rights without making the evangelical’s sincere viewpoint illegal.
So all of this begs the question, why can’t our elected officials find these compromises? I think the answer is clear: Politicians care more about being re-elected than about accomplishing anything in office.
Ubiquitous gerrymandering has institutionalized this phenomenon. Gerrymandering doesn’t only create safe districts for the majority, but also the minority. The way you get a whole bunch of districts with 60% favoring your side is by creating a few districts with 80% favoring the other.
The result is that in many cases, general elections don’t matter, only the primaries. So primary voters no longer have incentive to elect a bipartisan moderate who has a better chance in the general. Activist primary voters are more likely to elect an extremist who will “go fight for you.” Translation: talk about the other side as evil.
We’ve got to find our way out of this. I find myself debating systemic fixes such as requiring bills to have a majority vote of each party, or if you don’t vote for enough bills that pass, you’re ineligible for re-election. Create incentives to work together and get stuff done. Nonpartisan redistricting commissions are certainly a step in the right direction.
But politicians aren’t going to oust themselves. The answer has to start with you and me. We have to hold politicians from both sides accountable for actually accomplishing things.
There are legitimate reasons one would choose to be liberal. There are legitimate reasons one would choose to be conservative.
Let’s quit talking about the other as if they were evil. Let’s combine the best of both sides. Let’s find common ground.