Is There Any Common Ground?

Good friend Wilbur Johnson, in another of his excellent “Daily Blasts” [October 13] laments the profound polarization gripping the United States. After tracing the events, conflicts, and elections that have led us to this sorry place in our history, he asks, “ As we survey the landscape of elected officials, do we see any centrists — on either side — who could bring enough reasonable people to the table to effectively govern the country?  That seems to be the $64,000 Question.  There is talk that policy wonks Clinton and Ryan may be able to ‘work together.’  That might be our only hope, as far as moving beyond this impasse of living with a government that doesn’t govern.” Wilbur and I were talking about this question the other day, as we left a matinee of The Birth of a Nation. We both acknowledged that we have no tolerance for the Republican presidential candidate, and almost no patience for his supporters. But can we “reach across the aisle”? Can we find common ground with people who, like some of my neighbors and in-laws, are genuinely good people who simply don’t see social, political, or economic issues the way I do?

So I ask myself, in what ways am I a centrist? And here are my first, quickly brainstormed answers–the answers of an old-school FDR liberal who has sympathy for some complaints from the other side.

  • I think regulatory rules and government bureaucracy are bloated, irritating, expensive, and counter-productive. This doesn’t mean that I am reflexively against “big government” nor that I see no need for regulations that protect the environment, oversee banking practices, assure we are buying healthy food, or guarantee we labor in safe workplaces. Still, the regulations go beyond their good intentions. The minutiae and torturous paperwork that presently come with regulatory agencies does need to be reined in.
  • The tax laws are absurdly complicated. I might approve of lowering corporate tax rates if we also eliminated the vast and complex array of loopholes designed and understood only by lawyers from white-shoe firms. And my wife and I—who have only our pensions and a little bit of interest payments as income—still hire a CPA to make sure that we correctly file the odious forms.
  • Even though it is much less problematic right now, illegal immigration has been a significant problem over the last few decades. It has, for instance, been unfair to those who follow the legal process, waiting in the long, slow line of would-be residents. It has flooded dozens of American city school systems with students who need an education while also needing to learn English—and many of those students are transients whose attendance is sporadic and therefore disruptive. Knowing this does not mean hating, or even resenting, the undocumented workers who have come here with desperate hopes of escaping both violence and crippling poverty. The vast majority also work incredibly hard in order to get and keep a toehold in our economy. But it is foolish to insist that, because we want to treat these newcomers humanely, they haven’t created significant challenges for cities large and small throughout the country.
  • I do not begrudge a person the handgun she keeps in her night table, the shotguns and rifles he keeps in his hunting lodge, the weapons she takes to the target range. Though I am not a gun owner, I have held, loaded, and fired guns, and I actually like them. When the NRA argues that we are coming for their guns, they aren’t talking about me. But neither I nor the Supreme Court prior to 2008 and the D.C. v Heller decision, have ever believed that the 2nd Amendment is concerned with individual rights instead of the right to maintain “militias”—when the term refers to military units maintained by the state (and not in order to attack it). This is not terribly radical of me, especially when a large majority of Americans actually do want guns to be licensed and semi-automatics with huge magazines to be reserved for use by the military and police. So my position is already centrist.
  • Left and right have not, of late, been truly split about foreign policy issues (at least if we set aside Benghazi). It seems no one still believes the Iraq war was anything other than a travesty and a crisis. No one sees our fight in Afghanistan as a true success. There are people on both sides who want us to be much more wary about investing blood and money in foreign military campaigns. There are people on both sides who are full of bluster about how to smash ISIS or how to master Iran and Russia. And it seems no one knows what to do in Syria. In some ways, we are all centrists now regarding how to exert power and influence in the horrifyingly broken regions of the world.
  • The working stiffs of this country have been screwed. Even as the two political parties offer diametrically opposed solutions to the problem, income inequality angers and worries people on both the right and the left. We should be able to find common ground in efforts to address the problem. Letting Trump seize the issue by insisting that only he can make America great [again] is a serious error on the Democrats’ part. Mocking Trump for his claim is not good enough. Writing policies and platforms about fixing income inequality is not good enough. The issue, as proven by Bernie Sanders’ campaign, should be one of the constant drumbeats of the Clinton campaign.

I realize that, even as I write about common ground with my political opponents, I am still very clearly a well left-of-center kind of guy, one who will not be easily able to form a shared vision with my political enemies–those who really do deserve the “deplorable” label that has so offended them. But I don’t think those racist, bullying misogynists even approach a majority of American citizens. This campaign has shaken but not yet destroyed my faith in that belief, a faith that is somewhat strengthened as I see more and more Republicans abandon their presidential candidate.

So I do believe that I could sit on a Wyoming rancher’s porch and talk with him, maybe with some heat but not necessarily with rancor, about how some guns might be controlled. I might be able to meet a West Virginia coal miner and, as we both get past each other’s accents and styles, talk about what’s to be done to protect both his family and the world’s climate.  I could take a bar stool in my own town, and find a neighbor who’s pissed that Black Lives Matter activists “hate all cops and white people” and, if neither of us drank too much, I might hear his fear of old verities under threat, and he might hear my distress that those verities included cops having impunity in killing black folks. That last one may be a lot to ask. But we have to start asking–and without drinking too much. Which is to say, without losing our minds in tirades of visceral rage unmonitored by a knowledge of our shared humanity and the knowledge that most rage grows out of fear, worry, and a profound sense of loss or humiliation.

One thought on “Is There Any Common Ground?

  1. Thanks for the free publicity (I feel a bit like Mr. Trump!). As usual, a well-reasoned and sensible piece of writing and thinking (which, of course, we know is the same thing!). I wish I could be as rational (and less visceral) than you. My great fear is that the storm Trump has created will have long-range repercussions and the intransigence of Ryan and McConnell will continue to stifle effective governance. Nonetheless, a wonderfully articulate rendition of solid FDR liberal thinking!


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