Common Ground?

It would be nice if we could all just get along.

Apparently, we can’t.

It would be nice if we could at least find common ground.  We are going to hear a great deal about common ground in the next year.  We need to find common ground!

Apparently that’s too much to ask.

Is there anything we can agree on?

Have you noticed that progressives are starting to use the “We the People” slogan?  I see it among Sanders’ supporters more and more.  That has always been a Tea Party slogan.

Does that mean we are embracing Tea Party concepts?  I seriously doubt that.  But something interesting is happening.  Both the left and the right are beginning to realize that people need to get involved.

I saw this meme posted recently.   What struck me about it was how it could have been put up by either the extreme right or the progressive left with the change of one word or two words.  As it stands, I think it expresses the frustration of the right wing of the conservative ideology.  I say that because of the word “elitists.”  That’s a word conservatives use in a derogatory fashion toward those who have education, privilege, and a global outlook.

original meme

But what happens if you change the word “elitists” to “corporatists?”  Or “evangelicals?”

I can’t imagine a conservative would share that meme.  But I know lots of progressives who might.

When you talk about common ground, what are you really talking about?  Here are 50 words out of 51 that I really believe both sides could agree with.  There’s only one word separating them.  What if you replaced “elitists” with “people?”  Just people.

It’s fairly apparent that everyone believes America today has serious issues.  Everyone understands that people are angry, their patience is running out, and they want things to change.  But when we start using trigger words like “elitists” or “corporatists” or “evangelicals” we flip a switch in people’s brains and the entire concept of understanding goes out the window and is replaced by ingrained emotional reaction, on both sides of the argument.

The same is true with the phrase “American values.”  That’s another trigger phrase.  It means very different things to different people.  What if we replace “American” with “our?”  We are all Americans, right?

We have a new meme now:

meme comparison

If you saw that meme posted, it would not be easy to know whether it is was posted by the left or the right.

On the other hand, you probably would not see that meme posted because it has no real appeal to either camp.  It could be agreed to by either camp, but why bother.  It’s pretty obvious stuff, right?  It has had the venom milked out of it by changing two words out of fifty one.  The accusation is gone, and without accusation there isn’t any argument left.  And without argument there isn’t a winner, and if there isn’t a winner, who cares?

There is a great deal of common ground in this country hidden behind the ideologies of blame.  Both the left and the right are angry and feel their patience is being tried.  Both feel that they are being attacked.  Both feel government has failed them.  Both know the economy is in trouble.  Everyone feels that things are coming to a head.

That is a whole lot of common ground!

But the left and the right can’t talk to each other because they disagree so vehemently on who to blame and what the causes are.  And if you can’t talk to each other, common ground is useless.

That new meme – that meme that represents all the common ground – will never get posted because it doesn’t advance the political agenda of either side.  But that’s what common ground IS.  It’s the stuff in the middle that doesn’t advance your point of view but is the basis for all of it.  It’s the “here are the problems” without the baggage of “and it’s all your fault.”

And it is very vague.  It involves macro feelings and overarching ideas.

It’s when you try to get specific that you run into problems.

In her article “The Gospel of Us versus Them,” Marie Trout, a writer with a fresh and unique viewpoint at The Bern Report, makes the claim that “there are plenty of issues where we can join forces with those who wish to shrink the size of government.”  She then talks about eliminating tax subsidies to Walmart, the oil lobby, and the sugar industry.  Those are wonderful ways to shrink the size of government – from the perspective of the progressive left.  Unfortunately, the conservative right does not consider those ideas worthy of discussion.  Those ideas would harm those people who keep them in business.   Common ground is not common interest.

Trout urges us to “start a productive dialogue about these topics with our friends across the aisle.”  It’s a noble sentiment, but it has been tried, repeatedly, to no effect.

No, what the conservative right means by “shrinking the size of government” is that we need to eliminate all that money we spend on social programs like food stamps and welfare.  We need to get rid of Medicare and Medicaid.  We need to eliminate the Departments of Education and Health.

Instead of playing into the current hostility by digging our heels in,” says Trout, “we can find common ground. We can start working towards solutions that –definitions be damned— actually work for the widest group of people possible.”

But definitions are everything.  You cannot have a productive dialogue unless you can agree on what the words you are using mean.

If we could ever get both sides to a table long enough to actually talk to each other, we might agree on the idea that government isn’t working well (that’s vague enough), but we couldn’t even agree on what it means to have a government that is “too large.”  “Too large” is intricately tied up in the reasons why it is too large.  Say “too large” and conservatives are thinking one thing and progressives something other entirely.

It isn’t just us vs them.  It’s everything “we” believe vs everything “they” believe and that gets encapsulated into every single issue.  You have to have common definitions in order to have a discussion.  And those definitions have to leave out the baggage of blame.

And in order to work with another group toward solutions that benefit the most people, you have to have two groups who actually want things that work for the widest group of people possible.  Right now the conservative right isn’t interested what’s best for the most people.  They are interested in what is best for their people.

Common ground will not be easy to come by once you leave the realm of vague rhetoric and overarching anger.  And in the midst of a presidential election may be the worst possible time to attempt to find it.  You simply cannot talk someone out of years of cognitive dissonance over a beer on Saturday night.  Logic will not triumph over ingrained belief in the short run.  Ask any southern liberal.

You can post a notice that says “Everyone who believes in meme number two, meet in the library at 7 pm.” and you’ll get a crowd from both ends of the political spectrum.  Before you do anything else, though, you had better get everyone to agree to exactly what all the words you are going to use mean or you’ll just have another shouting match to contend with.  And don’t forget about all that anger waiting to erupt.

Seeking common ground is a laudable goal.  Long term, it is the best way to solve problems decades in the making.  Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t take decades to find it.

If the Republican nomination race continues to alienate the more establishment elements of the Republican Party, and if the final nominee choice alienates some of them even further, which is not all that far-fetched, there is a chance to reach out to these voters from the left.  It will do little good to frame that outreach in terms of common ground, however.  Logic will not be the language of the conversation.

As is always the case in these moments, anger and frustration will be the language of choice.  “The enemy of your enemy is your friend,” is the logic that could prevail.

Join us.  Just this one time, join us.  Work with us to purge your party of the fanatics.  Help us stop them from tearing the country apart beyond repair.  You don’t want that.  We don’t want that.  Let us help you get your party back.  We’ll work with you.  They won’t.  They’ve shown that.

We’ll find common ground over time.

Right now we have a common interest.

Educate yourself.

Educate your friends.

Enough is Enough.


Roger A. Shipley - The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

Roger Shipley, AKA The Willowbrook Curmudgeon, spent forty years teaching in the American educational system and emerged a grumpy old man. Ensconced in the Pacific Northwest, he writes, carves, and chides people for bad grammar. You can also find his grumblings at The Curmudgeon's Lair or follow his nonsense on Twitter or Face Book

3 thoughts on “Common Ground?

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    November 1, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    The tea party should not use the slogan “We, The People”, because they do NOT represent the people. They represent the damned Koch Bros. and perhaps, some of their allies. The tea party positions do NOT help the American people.

  • Avatar
    November 1, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Thanks for quoting my article. And obviously I agree that the definitions we use, must be clear if we are to frame any debate in a meaningful way.
    Listening to the Republican debate the other night, many of the candidates mentioned the negative influence on our democracy from big money, lobbyists, and special interests. I believe this view is becoming bilaterally shared. I found this interesting. The methods of how to combat such influence, is where left and right differ. On the right government is the perpetual scapegoat – but how the government became corrupt and beholden to money interests is a discussion they leave out of the equation.
    I am a firm believer in transparent discussion beyond the usual talking points. I don’t believe business as usual, where we blame, seek to provoke, and point the fingers across party lines work. If logic and reason don’t work, you call in your article for the heat of the emotions to sway convictions. But such anger will not pull the wool from the eyes of those who are working hard to saw through the branch upon which they themselves are perched; those who vote consistently against their own interests. Yet as far as your conclusion, I agree with you: fact-based research will need to be accomplished for them even to know where to direct their anger. Which leads us back to reason and logic. If we let go of common sense, factual debate, we just join the chorus of fragmented pawns yelling from each of our black and white squares. And in the meantime, the real game is being played over our heads.

  • Avatar
    November 1, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Rather than calling for the heat of emotions to sway convictions – something that never will (nor should) happen, I simply tried to point out that sometimes emotions can be used forge temporary alliances that work in the common interests of both parties. No ideological change occurs on either side. Sometimes progress toward solving problems can.

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