Oct/Nov 2008  •   Salon

Finding Common Ground in Today's Political Landscape

by Tom Dooley

I've written most of my Salon essays on the subjects of good and evil, liberalism and conservatism, secularism and religion. I haven't tended to be too interested in Republicans and Democrats per se—party politics may be essential to our political system, but they aren't all that useful to talk about from a philosophical or ideological standpoint. I usually vote for Democrats not because they're Democrats but because their policies tend to be more in line with my personal ideology. I'm registered as an Independent, incidentally, a fact that in New Mexico prevented me from participating in the primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Over the years I've tended to rail more against Republicans because their actions have engendered within me more disapproval, if not outright disgust.

In spite of the polarization that often comes across in my Salon essays, however, I've come to feel, generally, there isn't much difference between a liberal like me and the average person who identifies herself as a conservative. Usually, when a discussion (argument) with such a person breaks out, we start off assuming things about each other that don't wind up being true. She, the conservative, will assume I hate the military, disdain religion, love taxes, and abhor personal responsibility. I on the other hand will assume she is unconsciously racist, homophobic, and not only ignorant of history, current events, and statistical facts, but also adhering to beliefs she hasn't examined enough to even know what she actually believes.

I'll admit, my preconceptions are much less charitable and usually the same amount less true than the conservative's. And while we may vary on how we think they can best be achieved, we both want the same things: safety, prosperity, and happiness for our nation, community, family, and selves.

The point of that last sentence deserves restating: generally, liberals and conservatives want the same ends; it's the means upon which we disagree.

Unfortunately, our national discourse is almost always focused on treating the means as ends. Not surprisingly, we get wrapped around the proverbial axle when we treat modes of transportation as destinations.

There's no way for any of us to know for sure if America is going through temporary setbacks, on a permanent decline, or already irrevocably broken. The combination of problems our country faces are too complex to fully understand from the inside and the present. However, things are bad enough, most of us can agree there are serious problems—problems serious enough to require solutions, or the fate of our nation will be impacted.

It may be counter-intuitive, but a heightened need for solutions requires us to take a break from obsessing about how we're going to fix things and finally agree on what we want to fix. We simply must find common ground, and the common ground must be where we want to wind up, and the decisions we make on how to get to that common ground must be driven not by partisan politics and narrow ideologies but by logic and facts, governed by a set of core, common principles—principles already laid out for us in the Constitution.

I believe this approach can work, no matter how divisive the issue is. There have been few issues more contentious in the last two decades than abortion, but even here there is reason to think liberals and conservatives can work together to achieve an outcome they both want. Both sides would, if they really thought about it, want an ideal end state where there are no abortions, every child is born into a safe, healthy, loving family, and people's (especially women's) civil liberties and rights are protected. No reasonable liberal wants to see children aborted. No reasonable conservative wants women encountering coat hangers in back alleys. What's missing from the liberal agenda is a clear commitment to reducing the number of abortions performed each year. What's missing from the conservative agenda is an understanding that prohibition and shame will not work any better in stamping out abortions today than they did with alcohol in the 1920s. Liberals should expand the focus of the pro-choice movement from preserving the choice itself to preventing in as many cases as possible the need for said choice. Conservatives should remember one of the fundamental principles of our nation is none of us are allowed to force our religious beliefs and ideologies on the rest of us.

Gun control is another example where we focus too much on the means rather than the end. What liberals and conservatives both want is safe communities, free from gun violence and crime. No reasonable liberal wants a police state where otherwise law-abiding citizens are ferreted out by the government and forcibly disarmed. No reasonable conservative wants teenagers killing each other in school cafeterias with automatic weapons. Here, liberals should understand, statistically speaking, responsible gun ownership might actually be a contributing factor in lowering crime rates. Conservatives should accept responsible gun ownership has got to involve some form of government regulation and restriction, and that treating every infringement on total gun freedom as the beginning of a slippery slope toward totalitarianism is polarizing and counter-productive.

The common ground approach can only work if both sides are willing to compromise and listen to reason. The listening part becomes even more important, because the moment one opens up the debate to a common goal rather than a specific strategy for achieving that goal, there are suddenly a lot more things to talk about. With respect to both of the issues mentioned above, what we have narrowly defined as a debate over aborting a child or not aborting it, or of allowing or not allowing Joe-Sixpack to own a gun, now becomes a question of how do we reduce the number of women who find themselves in a situation where they feel abortion is their best or only option? How do we help to ensure the greatest number of children are born into functioning, stable families? How do we make our communities safer and our young people less likely to turn to violence? And all of those questions start bringing up other means/ends arguments, like welfare reform and tax cuts and raising the minimum wage. Each of these issues must in turn be analyzed for common ground, and then we must work backwards from the resulting, common goals. We must use logic and facts and Constitutional principles, and we must be willing to compromise and listen.

If we take this approach, I think we have a real shot at raising America (and in turn, the rest of the world) out of its current funk and closer to representing the ideals upon which this nation was founded. It's a win-win approach, because both liberals and conservatives stand an opportunity of getting what they truly want. Too often in this country, as has been the case throughout the history of democracy since the days of Ancient Greece, the politics of division are used to convince people to vote against their self-interests. We have an opportunity in the coming years to insist our leaders and political process take a different tack: focus on defining and pursuing the self-interests applicable to all Americans, liberal and conservative alike.


Postscript: A day after writing this essay, Julie and I heard an interview on the radio with Frank Schaeffer, author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Schaeffer, one of the authors of the pro-life movement, stated he would rather vote for a pro-choice candidate if he knew that candidate's policies and governing would ultimately result in fewer abortions than would the policies and governing of a candidate who was more "theologically correct." It was a sunshiny moment.