Monday, October 25, 2010

Can We Talk?

In sports, I'm a natural defender. I would have liked to have been the kind of player, like Linda Appio on my eighth-grade basketball team, who made magic happen almost every time she took it to the hoop. Instead I was someone who kept track of the ball and made my move when my opponent was being sloppy with it. And then I gave it to Appio, who was much more sure to score than I ever was. When I played basketball, I frequently put my hand on the small of my opponents' back, just to let her know I was still there. At the very least I irritated them. Sometimes that was enough to knock them off their game.

During this election cycle, I've been doing a political version of playing defense. The U.S. representative of my district, Betsy Markey, asks volunteers to phone and canvass Republicans and unaffiliated voters. The first time I volunteered, I can't say I was excited about this. Very few mere mortals enjoy getting in the faces of people who oppose them. (The title of this blog post comes from Joan Rivers, one of my favorite comedians, who has made her career on getting in people's faces. She's another Appio.) But I get what Markey's doing. Rep. Markey, unlike her predecessor Marilyn Musgrave, is trying to represent her entire district, not just a slim slice of fawning admirers. Musgrave believed that the Defense of Marriage Act was the most important issue facing our country. Not. She was wrong then, and the economic and political crises we face in our country only make her grandstanding even more unconscionable now.

Many of the Republicans I've contacted are having none of Markey's approach.
Then again, phoning them or coming to their door is a way of gently putting my hand on the small of their back, just to remind them I'm here. Most have been gracious, even if my call didn't change their minds. A few have sincerely thanked me for calling or coming by. Two have told me they have no idea what Betsy's opponent, Cory Gardner, stands for, and that they'll vote for Markey--again. Far fewer have been downright rude, like the man who said, "Longmont Area Democrats?" before blasting his FAX machine in my ear. Some others have treated me like I was an invading army, and therefore an enemy, instead of someone who simply has a world view that is different from theirs. I believe the official Republican party position on repealing the health care law (even though many of them agree with most of its provisions) is misguided. This does not mean I believe Republicans are unpatriotic and therefore my enemy. Yesterday's Doonesbury strip pretty much sums up the Republican party's lack of concrete solutions and the misdiagnosis of the problems in our country.

When I canvassed a neighborhood in northeast Longmont yesterday, the last two houses I visited were those of elderly Republicans. When I asked the one gentleman if he's joining me in supporting Betsy Markey and Michael Bennet, he sneered, "Absolutely not," as if the very idea of voting for these two incumbents were an affront to his honor and morality. 

The woman next door said, "You've come to the wrong house," and laughed kind of maniacally as I walked away. 

No, honey, I've come to the right house. Betsy Markey was elected this district's representative in 2008, making her your representative. The Democratic party and the people who support Democratic candidates are no more the enemy than Republican candidates and the people who support them. Colorado's 4th district is inherently ungovernable. It covers a huge and varied geographical area of the state, from cosmopolitan Ft. Collins to teeny little towns on the northeastern prairielands where cattle outnumber voters. Markey has made some of her liberal supporters mad with some of her votes, such as her vote against the stimulus package and the first iteration of the health care initiative. Not to mention her A+ endorsement by the National Rifle Association. One of my neighbors calls her "the Republican Betsy Markey." I confess I haven't liked all her stands and votes, but again, I get what she's doing. She's doing her best to balance the interests of those diverse and often cranky voters who are her constituents. That's a rare and admirable thing in today's politics, where the personal opinion and emotional state of the representative take precedence far too often.

By the way, Cory Gardner has not attempted to contact me by phone or mail, and his campaign has certainly never darkened my door. Nor has Michael Bennet's opponent, Ken Buck. Does that mean they don't consider me to be one of their constituents?

This is exactly what is wrong in public life these days. This enemy-making mentality is eroding our ability to acknowledge difference and to trust in one another. Just because we disagree about the nature of the solutions to our country's problems does not make us enemies. It makes us people who disagree. Some have become so cynical they believe there's no remedy, and they simply give up and retreat into a state of hostility and resentment against those who oppose their world view. 

So what do people do when they have conflicts within their families? Do they brand them irredeemable enemies and throw up metaphorical, or even literal, walls? We know from our own bitter history that Americans cannot live in a house divided. Nor is conflict resolution a matter of getting the other guy to see things your way. 

Conflict resolution does involve the art of compromise, an art that has received some very bad press from the far-right Tea Party as well as the far left. My understanding of compromise is that you sit down with your opponents and have open discussions about the nature of the dispute. You both commit to doing everything in your power to defuse it. Together you identify what each side can give up, and what they absolutely cannot give up. No fair telling the other side they're simply wrong.

If we continue going down this path of perpetual discord, we're heading for a divorce. Our country can't afford a divorce. It's absolutely critical that we work out our problems, and yes, for the sake of the children. Because all this hostility is unhealthy. It resolves nothing.

So let's roll up our sleeves and do some really good work we can all be proud of, the work of finding agreement where there previously was none, of acknowledging disagreement as respectfully as we can, while making a sincere effort to understand where our opponents are coming from. Maybe by accident we'll even be able to respect each other. And maybe, just maybe, out of this synthesis, we can begin to find creative solutions to our problems.

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