We are neighbors who live two doors down from each other. From block parties and chatting over the years, we’ve known that our political orientations are at different ends of the spectrum. We’ve both talked politics with people who agree with us, but in this time of political transition and turmoil we wanted to see if anything constructive could happen in a conversation that started from different places. We sat down for two hours in a coffee shop. Here are a few things we learned we have in common:
• We have both felt at times during the past several years that we don’t recognize our country anymore, that fundamental shifts have occurred that we don’t understand.
• Neither of us was particularly excited by the choices on the presidential ballot this time around.
• We are both dismayed by the ongoing partisanship in which one “side” appears to emerge as the victor for a period of time while the other is made to feel like the loser.
• We believe this nation should provide fair opportunities and treatment for all its citizens, and we want to make the world a better place for our families and our descendants.
For the bulk of the discussion, we went down the list of planks of the two major political party platforms. As we expected, we had different takes on some (OK, many) of the issues. But we found common ground on several. For example:
• Fiscal policy: Balance the budget. We may disagree on how much should be spent, but everything spent must be paid for.
• Employment: Make working more attractive than welfare, by providing a $15-an-hour minimum wage and curtailing welfare benefits in areas where good jobs are available.
• Environment: Prevent unnecessary exploitation of natural resources in wilderness areas. Encourage transformation from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources in ways that provide training for workers to make the transition. Institute a carbon tax and incentives to reduce pollution if they can be enforced in ways that don’t disadvantage the U.S. against other countries.
• Gun control: Maintain rights to keep weapons for hunting and self-defense for citizens properly trained in the use and safe storage of those weapons. Eliminate access to semiautomatic weapons more likely to be used offensively than defensively. Institute stronger background checks to restrict the flow of guns to criminals and the mentally ill.
• Law enforcement: Train police properly for the difficult work they do. Officers deserve respect for the unique challenges they face. At the same time, they must be held accountable when their actions depart from training and codes of conduct.
• Health care: Keep the good parts of the Affordable Care Act, such as coverage for preexisting conditions and for children up to age 26. Rework the system to mitigate the heavy premium increases for individual coverage and the excessive costs of drugs and devices relative to other countries.
Notice how all those items blend traditionally conservative and liberal ideas. Which makes those two “sides” seem less like opponents in some battle and more like partners seeking common goals.
In some cases we learned that we support the same concepts, but because we put a priority on different aspects, we end up with different positions. A couple examples:
• We both support parents’ right to seek the best education for their children, and we both support providing good education to all children as a way to give everyone a fair chance to succeed. One of us weights the first goal higher and supports vouchers for private schools, and the other prioritizes the second goal and wants more resources for public schools.
• We both support religious freedom and civil rights for minorities. Because of the different weights we give those two concepts, we end up in different places about whether, say, a photography business should have the right to deny service to a gay-marriage ceremony.
So even for issues that seem like disagreements on the surface, underneath are sets of values that aren’t so far apart. On these matters and many others, we are sympathetic to each other’s opinion. The discussion brought us a shared respect with the realization that we are two people who have reached our beliefs through careful consideration.
We also discussed the fact that there are some personal, nonnegotiable moral issues that may never achieve joint-party or even single-party consensus, such as abortion, euthanasia, recreational drug use, and internet pornography.
The extremists on both sides of the spectrum get far too much attention in political forums. Their sensational ideas and hate speech often drown out moderate discussion. But there are many more of us closer to the center, where common sense, rationality and patience dwell. If we are willing to reach out across that scary chasm, we may learn that (1) the chasm isn’t so deep after all, and (2) we have strength in numbers. We need more politicians who pursue sensible compromises, and we need the media’s help to focus on genuine efforts to make constructive improvements.
We all need to have more conversations like this one. We need to ask each other questions and to listen, respectfully, to the answers. Probe deeper. Hear what the other person is saying, and then ask why s/he feels that way. Take a risk: Reach out to somebody you know is different from you, and look together for what you have in common. You may find more than you expect.
Jeff Naylor and Michael Tillemans live in Minneapolis.