Can We Talk?

DEAR FRED:

It’s been a long time since we’ve spoken — far too long. I won’t rehash that last quarrel we had; I’m sure you remember it as well as I do. But now, with the campaign season in full swing, I’ve been thinking a lot about it and about the bigger rift that it’s a symptom of.

I don’t know about you, but I’m deeply troubled by the polarization that seems increasingly to hamstring our politicians and prevent them from governing effectively. As you and I know, polarization is not the same as disagreement. As a Democrat and a Republican, we used to disagree all the time. Americans hold strong opinions and argue them vigorously, and this is all to the good; it’s how we decide what we think and how to move ahead. But in recent years, healthy differences of opinion have been giving way to unhealthy polarization — unnecessary, overly emotional or unbridgeable disagreement that’s deadlocking our politics and making it impossible to reach the kind of consensus we need to solve the problems before us.

I know you’re angry, and there are people in both our parties who feel the bitterness is justified. But think about the issues we’ve been too divided to grapple with in recent years: how to provide the nation with a reliable source of energy, how to fix our broken healthcare system, how to put Social Security on a solid footing. What kind of country can we hope to leave our children if we can’t come together to deal with problems like these?

It was in Mexico this summer that the issue crystallized for me. The Mexican election — a dramatic, black-and-white contest between left-leaning statist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and free-market conservative Felipe Calderon — raised an issue truly worth arguing about: the choice between two fundamentally different worldviews and two visions of Mexico’s future. But unlike the stark choice facing Mexico, many of the issues we’re grappling with in the United States are gray. The majority of voters fundamentally agree about them, differing only on how to reach what are largely shared goals.

Consider some of the most divisive issues in U.S. politics today. Does anyone in either party think it’s a good thing that 46 million Americans live without health insurance? Is there anyone who believes that we can go on as we are, ignoring 12 million illegal immigrants living beyond the reach of the law? Do most Americans, right or left, want the United States to withdraw from the world, giving up our role as standard-bearer for democracy and human rights?

I don’t think so. And if we could acknowledge these commonalities and recognize that in many cases what we’re arguing about are means rather than ends, I believe that we would find it significantly easier to agree on solutions.

I’m not suggesting that anyone give up his or her principles. The goal is not some mushy middle or a third way for the sake of a third way. The issues I’ve mentioned will still be intensely contentious. But as Democrats and Republicans together were able, 10 years ago, to break the deadlock on welfare reform, so today we need to do a better job of getting beyond our differences.

How do we do this? I believe three basic changes are in order. They start with strictly political fixes. And the most important of these is ending the partisan legislative redistricting that makes it possible for elected officials to all but ignore centrist voters.

Second, more difficult but even more crucial, we need to reverse the galloping Balkanization of our cultural life. That fragmentation has gotten so bad that many of us rarely speak to anyone we disagree with or read anything that doesn’t confirm our entrenched views.

Third, and perhaps most difficult of all, we need to find a way to restore the fundamental trust that, in the best of times, has undergirded our politics. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives have always disagreed, but not with the bitterness and mutual mistrust that permeates the debate today and that makes it impossible for many to see the good faith across the aisle, let alone come to any agreement.

We need to put competition and persuasion back into politics. We need to remember how to listen to and, harder yet, hear one another.

My bottom line: Let’s argue — angrily if we have to — about the big issues. But meanwhile, let’s also find a way to work more constructively on the problems we need to solve. There’s too much at stake to go on as divided as we are.

Can we talk?

All best, Tamar

(From the LA Times by Tamar Jacoby. TAMAR JACOBY, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the coauthor of “Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means To Be American.”)

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