I am unashamedly a partisan in our current political debates. I think we have two major political parties in this country: a conservative one and a far-right party controlled by anachronistic theocrats and billionaire robber barons. I would love to have an actual, “liberal” party here, but I think it may take several more generations before we catch up to the rest of the Western world in that regard.
I point this out to explain that the observations which follow are not those of a “centrist” or a “moderate.” I have very strong political views, and an intense dislike of nearly every aspect of the opposing party’s platform. I think much of the work of my own party does not go far enough – to protect the environment, to protect the working class, and to protect our civil liberties.
Which leads to my conundrum. To be so partisan, how can I have close friends, beloved friends who are like family, who are Republicans? We are not friends because we have to be. I like these women and men, value their opinions, and am grateful for their friendship. And yet, they stand on the other side of this enormous political chasm, aligned with a political party that represents all of the values I oppose.
To examine this apparent contradiction, I started by asking myself which traits are common among all my close friends. What do I value in a friend? Based on my own observations, there are five core traits (in descending order) that are of fundamental importance to me in choosing my friends: loyalty, integrity, kindness, generosity, and intelligence. I am fortunate to have several close friends who have these traits in abundance.
This led me to my next question. How is it that loyal, kind, ethical, generous, smart people could come to such different conclusions from mine about how we should govern the country? I know from personal experience that they are not mean or cruel, yet they support a party which – from my perspective – wants to deny healthcare, a living wage, and safe working environments to our citizens. I know from personal experience that they are deeply ethical, yet they support a party which – from my perspective – wants to give corporations free reign to destroy the health of our planet and our citizens. I know from personal experience that they are loyal and generous to people of all backgrounds, yet they support a party which – from my perspective – privileges wealthy, straight, white men and denies rights and opportunities to people from other groups.
I’m sure from their perspective they find my politics equally puzzling. How can we have so many values in common, yet ally ourselves passionately with opposing political parties? How can we all values personal responsibility, kindness, excellence, and community; yet have such different understandings of how we – the people – should act to nurture those things?
Perhaps our values are more different than I think? Asking this question led me to consider specific scenarios. How would my friends and I respond to a person we found injured by the side of the road? (I didn’t come up with that one, Jesus did.) How would we respond to someone we knew whose child had cancer but could not afford their medical bills? What would we do if we saw someone dumping toxic waste into a river?
In every scenario I could think of, my friends and I – despite our profound political differences – had approximately the same response. Yet our posts on Facebook, our bumper stickers, and the conclusions of every pundit and political poll would claim that we do not agree on anything. Where is the disconnect?
My best guess is that it is rooted in the fact that our political debates are not about specific scenarios. Instead, we align our loyalties to broad doctrines: libertarianism, objectivism, socialism, family values, progressivism, and many others, We plant our flags on what we think those ideas mean, and then defend them against all comers.
Along the way, I don’t think we stop often enough to ask ourselves: What problems are we trying to solve? Perhaps if this became our starting point – working inductively from what we hope to accomplish rather than deductively from the partisan concepts we hold most dear – we would begin with our common values rather than our opposing worldviews. We would answer the questions collaboratively, rather than combatively. We do this sometimes on a local level, working together to solve a known problem or sudden catastrophe.
On the national level, however, we almost never manage to do the same. As a result, we spend a lot of time arguing about ideological differences rather than rolling up our sleeves and working to make this amazing country stronger, healthier, and ready for the future. The single mother working two full-time jobs and still unable to provide a safe home and healthcare for her children is not helped by our bickering. The student who has diligently studied and sacrificed for their whole life for an education they realize they cannot afford will not suddenly be able to earn a diploma because of our debates. The children who suffer from preventable ailments caused by unbreathable air, undrinkable water, or a lack of access to healthcare will not be miraculous healed by the time and resources we spend attacking the ideas of people who actually share our same core values.
So who is served by this impasse, in which people who care about the same things and share the same priorities spend their time arguing about whose theories are right – rather than realizing that there are plenty of practical solutions we actually agree upon? Perhaps it benefits a small number of plutocrats who take advantage of the distractions to continue to exploit the system for their personal gain. We, the common citizens, are certainly not helped in any way, and those of our neighbors in need clearly reap no benefits from our partisanship.
Unfortunately, I cannot think of an easy solution. Our political system is built on a balancing beam of two opposing parties; and nothing short of a constitutional mandate is likely to change that. On a personal level, though, perhaps it behooves us all to stop and consider the enigma of our friendships with people with whom – according to the claims of our respective political parties – we have nothing in common. When we do, we might find ourselves digging down past convenient labels and dogmas and instead talking about how we can, together, build on our shared values to fix what is broken in our communities and our nation. Doing so won’t advance the agenda of either party, and it won’t resolve a single political debate, but we might just realize those things don’t matter quite as much as we thought they did.