Common Ground is the New Arctic Ice

In the U.S. recently: Pope Francis. Chinese President Xi Jinping. Russian President Vladimir Putin. And a political zombie—yet another threat to shut down the government, this time because radical Republicans want Planned Parenthood defunded.

This last one has become really tiresome.

John Boehner’s advance-notice resignation staved off that crisis, but it’ll be back in December. Hey, Tea Partiers: I’m the one smoking the tea, and I know your chances for success are nil. So what hallucinogen are you on?

Those first three visitors represented an opportunity to meet and find common ground, despite diametrically opposing views. The Pope preaches this opportunity everywhere he goes, along with many other radical views.

President Xi was treated to the lavish state dinner that befits a trillion-dollar creditor …and to lectures that befit a cyber-enemy and economic rival. Obama and Xi talked with (and undoutedly to) each other, each advocating for his country of course, but trying to find common ground. Because the two biggest economic forces on the planet must find that, or both countries suffer.

Holding that discussion, sometimes successfully, is known as practicing politics.

Obama and Putin sat down in New York for some tense talks between frenemies who both oppose and cooperate with each other. Don’t forget, all visitors to the International Space Station fly on Russian rockets. So we already have common ground. And we are best served trying to find more. Again, this is politics 101. And it beats the pants off war.

…or so I wrote on September 29. Crap! On September 30, Russian jets began bombing the Syrian Free Army—our allies—and not ISIS, as we had inferred they would. Obama haters went crazy, no surprise there. Indeed, the president is faced with a man he hosted just days before, who has no interest in common ground. And look what extremes we’re all facing now: back down from the bully or go to war with Russia.

I don’t want to do either of those things, and I hate that Putin might help us elect someone who would welcome the opportunity to start World War III. This is not an abstract concept. Something between those extremes will happen during this coming election year, and Republicans could use it whip the electorate into frenzy enough to give them Congress and the White House.

If they get that, they won’t be looking for common ground with our enemies. IMO you and I better start looking for shelter.

For those who didn’t live through it, the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 was as close as we’ve ever been to nuclear war. The Soviet Union challenged us and we challenged back. I was just 11, but I remember very well how close everyone felt to oblivion.

Instead, both sides talked. And negotiated. It didn’t turn into a shoving match. Each side gave up something—Russian missiles in Cuba vs. U.S. missiles in Turkey. Each side talked, and we’re here today thinking about it as history instead of our great-grandchildren scavenging a nuclear wasteland for food.

That crisis was not The End that it could easily have become. It was, in fact, the beginning of the so-called “Hot Line” between Moscow and Washington, that kept the Cold War from ever getting quite that hot again.

The Hot Line was never actually the red telephone that popular culture pictured for us. It could as high tech as a satellite link or as low tech as a telegraph. But it wasn’t really hardware at all. It was the concept of talking instead of fighting.

In 1962, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. didn’t share much common ground. Sting identified the most important common ground that we did have, 23 years later with this lyric in his song, Russians: “I hope the Russians love their children too.”

They did, and we all lived. I’m wondering about the Twenty-first Century Tea Partiers. Do they love their children?

With John Boehner retiring later this month from his House seat and from the speakership—because he cannot find common ground with some members of his own damn party—we get to watch our politicians not practicing politics, but instead playing a game of king-of-the-mountain. …you probably recall that childhood contest where anyone who reaches the highest point in a muddy scrum is tackled and knocked off it by someone else. It’s the grade-school version of anarchy. No such thing as common ground.

Like the arctic ice, chunks of political common ground have been disappearing for decades. It had been going on long before I recognized it during Bill Clinton’s time in office, with the ascendency of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. Fox News came later, spewing toxic clouds of white man anger like some giant truck rolling coal in everyone’s face.

As with melting arctic ice, the demise of compromise (a.k.a. real, actual politics) has been accelerating toward a point of no return. If Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could be peaceful adversaries, why not today’s leaders?

Here’s why. During his rise to power during the 90s, eventual Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich compiled a list of attack words to be used against political enemies. Exactly the opposite of seeking common ground. This strategy has worked more often than not during the last 20 years, and thus has come to define the Republican approach.

Now that I think of it, Nixon’s “dirty tricks” during the 1972 presidential campaign were a bellwether. They worked, too.

It’s hard to believe that I began this column 900 words ago, wanting to tell you about Bernie Sanders. It took all that I’ve written to get to here. I’ve yet to hear a Republican candidate offer any common ground with liberals. Do liberals offer any to conservatives? I think that they do, but I may not have the judgement anymore, to perceive that. Or even want it.

But Bernie Sanders does. He did an amazing thing a few weeks back, but it has sadly receded into the morass of old news. He went to a college campus where a liberal socialist could easily get into a shouting match with an evangelical conservative.

And what did Bernie find? Common ground. The scene was Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Here comes a white-haired liberal Jew—and a socialist!—onto an evangelical Christian university campus. Certainly conservative, and not likely socialist, despite the teachings of Jesus.

But socialism is where Sanders found common ground with some of the students there. He began by quoting the golden rule (Matthew 7:12) and kept on about hungry children and income inequality and poverty. Definitely common ground with church people. He won’t get political support from many of them, but he got their attention by meeting them part way.

Won’t anyone else do that? Well, there’s the Pope.

The top three organized western religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—seem to me to teach a lot of exclusion. We’re the chosen, we’re going to paradise, you’re not. Or worse: Tolerating your sin sends me to Hell. That’s why Pope Francis’s preaching of inclusion comes as such a breath of fresh air to some but such a shock to others. How dare he suggest that we love our gay neighbors, as we love ourselves!

Assuming that we do love ourselves.

Shortly after the Cuban Missile crisis, my Sunday school teacher told me—while seated beneath a stained glass window reading “God is Love”—that all the Catholics would burn in Hell. My best friend Glenn was one! And his teachers told him the same thing about me.

If religion has lost the “God is Love” part, if we elect politicians who refuse to talk with our rivals, if we cannot even try to tolerate each other any more—then we are in deep trouble.

* * *

Bernie Sanders also did some serious truth-telling at Liberty U. I wish it had been reported widely. But that’s for a different rant.

Political Survivor #20 

Written by

Steve Schlich is retired after 35 years of writing fiction about software: “easy to use,” “does what you want,” and the like. Hobbies include webmaster for, writing songs and short stories. In 2004, he created, a website chronicling the naughty public art in Washington, D.C. He lives happily with his wife and cats, north of San Francisco.

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