If we can talk with one another in a civil way, chances are good we shall find there is much more with which we can agree than disagree. Science tells us that regardless of culture, country, or race, all peoples around the world have in common 99.5% of human DNA. Yes, we can emphasize the differences and revel in what makes us unique, but if in doing so we lose sight of the much greater ways in which we are alike, there is a danger of also giving up our capacity for cooperation, compassion, and constructive compromise, without which there may be lots of self-congratulatory moments of finger-pointing and blaming one another for this or that, yet the vital work of resolving real issues and supporting the causes of all participants in a political dialogue will be left undone, sometimes for several decades. As this trend toward discord and division becomes widespread in the West, China and Russia will be the short-term beneficiaries, but the long-term future of generations could be in greater jeopardy.
Let us not, then, seek idealistic "kumbaya" love-fest moments of camaraderie with those whose assertions push our buttons, but instead simple, genuine acknowledgement of others' having legitimate points of view, deserving of our deference, while accepting too that out of disparities can arise functional solutions of benefit to all parties.
There have been many fine statesmen in American history, men and women of multiple and strongly held outlooks, who nonetheless rolled up their legislative or executive branch sleeves and did what was called for to promote and pass laws in the interest of all. In the long view, both major parties have helped construct a country that is in many ways the envy of the world, yet neither has acquitted itself with grand moral distinction relative to the other.
Our partisan disputes may make for good political theater yet are far worse than a mere waste of time, serenity, and vast sums of money. The greatness of our nation, I would argue, is built upon its diversity, its genius for finding and enhancing mutual, core values, its practical furtherance of the common good while respecting at once the rights of those currently in the minority and the majority.
A brother of mine, a manager at IRS, needed skills at having employees cooperate to solve human resource and productivity problems within the context of his organization's mission. Lately the focus in social media, politicians' rhetoric, or entertainment news programs (that tell us how great we are and how awful are those who have alternative opinions) all seem to be urging us to answer "No," and then crow about it. By contrast, my brother suggested as a great resource the book by Roger Risher and William Ury, Getting to Yes - Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. While this is not easy, it is evidently worthwhile compared with most alternatives.
I admire the commentaries of Mark Shields and David Brooks. These two journalists, more than usually mellow, while having views more consistent with the Democrats and the Republicans, respectively, manage week after week to express their often opposing viewpoints with civility, humor, and depth of perspective. At times I am more persuaded by one, at times by the other. Together, their approach would seem to add a useful measure of sanity to the present, crazy-seeming cacophony.
Similarly, I am encouraged there are now organizations like Better Angels (better-angels.org), Bipartisan Policy Center (bipartisanpolicy.org), and NoLabels (nolabels.org). These non-profit groups seek real dialogue and solutions, ones that combine the best from our political professionals of diverse backgrounds and parties. They and others like them can help us replace division with understanding. Out of that may come progress. We certainly must have it, and about time!
Perhaps we like to think the Biblical injunction to "Love your enemies" does not really apply in politics, but might we at least deal with them with respect?
It is as if two people on an island were hungry, each now with one dysfunctional arm and blaming the other for it, yet otherwise healthy and provided with a supply of seed. They could both die of starvation or somehow manage to work together to put in and take care of a garden that could feed them both well.
We can also think of the situation in terms of carrots and sticks. A powerful stick, in my view: if America does not quickly get its national act in order, it will be badly weakened, its influence on the world stage reduced, a vacuum that our main anti-democratic global competitors, China and Russia, will be delighted to fill, to our detriment and that of our closest allies.
Yet if we can more and more overcome our differences and emphasize what unites us, rather nutritious and tasty carrots might be in our future: stabilizing entitlements; reducing the national debt; adding tens of millions in new jobs; establishing a health care system that is cost-effective and works better for most everyone; enhancing the kinds of research and development that have made many of our universities great and kept us in the forefront, for instance, of technological and medical innovation; maintaining a strong national defense; increasing trade and international ties; fixing our aging infrastructure; dealing with greater weather instability; and reducing the gulf between our richest and poorest citizens.
As we approach a new Valentine season, gold stars ought to go not to those who can score the most points against people with whom they disagree, but to the folks seeking, despite an abundance of self-serving propaganda, spin, lies, fake news, or prejudicial exaggerations, the means to simply reach agreement with which we can live. Do we cherish and admire our political opponents? In most cases probably not, at least not about their biased positions.
Yet if it were clear to us that the quality of the lives of our nieces, grandnieces, nephews, grandnephews, children, and grandchildren depended on it, could we find ways to actually get key matters accomplished, notwithstanding a measure of underlying distrust, even enmity, in the process? Most likely.
In fact, that may well be what is at stake. So let us get on with it!