On the left, right and center of the political spectrum, nearly everyone wants good schools. Most of us hate poverty, war and injustice. We want better, more affordable mental and physical health care. We need better roads. Most Americans hate racism, bigotry, prejudice and other forms of hatred.
In a melting pot culture of mostly shared values and goals, people are unnervingly divided. We don’t so much dispute what humanity wants and needs. We fight about how to get there.
A look at social media on any given day tells the story of unbridled domestic strife. Innocent discussions of climate change or school choice quickly devolve into putdown sessions in which “Nazi,” “racist,” “homophobe” and “fascist” replace rational dialogue. No one wants to work with a monster, so we lose any chance of cooperation and compromise the moment each side demonizes the other.
Wise politicians know this. That is why leaders on both sides of the political divide spoke Thursday of a need for civility during their opening remarks of Colorado’s 2020 legislative session.
“When we realize that our fates are connected and that we are better together, we can solve any problem we encounter,” said Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.
Democratic House Speaker K.C. Becker invited members of both parties to prove “once again that government can still work for the people.”
Republican House Minority Leader Patrick Neville called for bipartisan cooperation, saying “what we want to be is Colorado, proud and free.”
On the Senate side, things were less cordial. Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia accused Republicans of spending the 2019 session “to not only divide the chamber but dismantle it, from Washington-style political antics to pointless attempts to upend the will of voters.”
Republican Minority Leader Chris Holbert promised Garcia the Republican “delaying tactics are likely to return” if Democrats try to steamroll the minority.
Political rancor has played a healthy and important role in our country’s great history, and we never want to lose it. Equally important has been a spirit of compromise, cooperation and respect for those the government serves. We stand on the brink of losing the latter.
In the 1980s, we saw two men with nearly opposite political views hash out compromises that moved America forward. Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan were neither close friends nor political allies, yet each shared a vision for making our country better for the people.
“While neither man embraced the other’s worldview, each respected the other’s right to hold it. Each respected the other as a man,” wrote O’Neill’s son, Thomas P. O’Neill, in the New York Times in 2012. “…What both men deplored more than the other’s political philosophy was stalemate, and a country that was so polarized by ideology and party politics that it could not move forward.”
The same was true of Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Democratic President Bill Clinton. Liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and conservative former justice Antonin Scalia were famous friends who learned from each other through spirited debates about the law.
Some of our country’s best public policy outcomes are products of civilized compromises that dispense with junk and embrace the best from each perspective.
Purists and those on the extremes of the right and left prefer scorched earth warfare and all-or-nothing victories. They have no use for compromise, viewing the concept as evil capitulation.
“If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later, and that’s what I told these radical conservatives who never got used to it,” wrote Reagan in his 1990 autobiography “An American Life.”
To reduce division, and improve results, we need only employ more respect for opponents. We should laser focus on good outcomes for the state and country we love. Such was the behavior of enlightened adults who made this country work for nearly 250 years.