10/08/2013 11:04 am ET | Updated Dec 08, 2013

In Praise of Commonsense Conservatives: A Humane and Rational Way to End the Standoff

Help! I'm a bicoastal liberal "trapped" in a Midwestern state so Republican that its unofficial slogan is "Go Big Red."

Actually, I love living in Nebraska, for many reasons but largely because it gives me the chance to work for progressive change among people I know to be essentially good folks.

The reason good Nebraskans lean so far right as to elect the dismal Deb Fischer to the Senate is simple: fear. It's the same reason that some of my coastal family and friends fear and loathe all Republicans.

As a science journalist, I revel in the study of human nature. As a political liberal, I share in the outrage over our government held hostage. But the former tells me that giving into the latter can only make things worse. Fear ignites hatred, and hatred leads to... well, Egypt, for example. I feel a duty to make some possibly unpopular points to my political kith and kin.

1) We need a healthy conservative political party.
On Prairie Home Companion last Saturday, Garrison Keillor joked about a national divorce. For many a frustrated liberal it's an attractive vision: Give 'em Texas, and maybe Mississippi, too. Throw in Alabama and Georgia, and the redneck portion of Florida, and offer refugee status to all fleeing liberals.

But it's an unworthy fantasy, and a hapless one at that. Science shows us that human nature embeds a range of political views in any human population. Moreover, the competitive drives and petty jealousies of any set of leaders ensures that however carefully you sort people into likeminded camps, splits, schisms, and divisions will eventually erupt, and you'll find yourself back to having conservatives and liberals in each others' faces.

That's not to say, however, that all opposition is alike. When people separate into mutually hostile tribes of fictive kinship -- notably, religions and secular idealist ideologies such as Marxism or nationalism -- then instead of politics you often get civil war. See Syria, Bosnia, and ... oh, yes, America, circa. 1860.

As a liberal, I'd always prefer to see a progressive party in power. Yet I know that we're best off when there is a healthy tension between the two major parties. Democratic politicians who feel that nothing can touch them are as liable to arrogance and corruption as Republicans. From Tammany Hall to Dan Rostenkowski, they've proven it over and over again.

No seat anywhere should be "safe." A grassroots campaign to overcome the gerrymandering of the last decade and reunite Democrats and Republicans in voting districts is essential to our national well-being. In the meantime, however...

2) We need to empower commonsense conservatives in the House and Senate.
The only good solution to the current crisis is passage of an unencumbered Continuing Resolution. The only way we get that is if the statesmanlike Republicans in the House feel that betraying their party leadership and defying the Koch brothers and other feudal barons who back the Tea Party is a move they can survive.

If you listen to my representative, Republican Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, you can hear behind the carefully chosen words a desire to move beyond the impasse. Note: he says "talk," not "negotiate."

The New York Times casts a spotlight on a more forthright GOP House Member, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. Even in these polarized times, there are at least 50 such House Republicans. By some accounts, more than a hundred would like to vote for a "clean" Continuing Resolution.

The only way that can happen is for Democrats to talk with them. There is a slim but essential difference between talking with colleagues and negotiating with the GOP. The former is worth doing; the latter would set a terrible precedent, allowing any fanatical minority to hold the government hostage in future.

What good would talk do? One of the strongest emotions in the human psyche is humiliation. From adolescence on, maintaining our status in the eyes of our peers is the single most important thing to most people. Rather than live with humiliation, some will strap on explosives and detonate themselves. As things stand, all Republicans face the prospect of humiliation if their siege collapses. To rub it in is counterproductive. To talk with the commonsense crew is to not to concede but to give them some cover.

3) We need to reach out to conservatives in our communities.
The feudal barons, whose Tea Party fantasies are really a political campaign to bolster aristocratic privilege, have a problem. They need voters to support policies that degrade their own lives (cutting into their old-age medical care, repealing an act that prevents insurance companies from refusing coverage if they become ill, gutting safety regulations and constraints on rapacious businesses, etc.), all for the benefit of the rich. There is only one way to pull off that trick, but it is highly effective: the use of propaganda to stir misdirected fear. After the 9/11 attacks, this tactic was shamelessly used to conflate liberals with terrorists.

Relying on propaganda, however, is playing with fire. It all too easily gets out of control. Thus, today nearly 60 percent of Republicans believe that global warming is a hoax, more than a third blame Saddam Hussein for the 9/11 attacks, and more than a fifth believe that President Obama is the anti-Christ.

But, as the tiny minority of gays in our society has shown over the last decade, there is a way to beat the fears: be yourself and reach out to others. Prejudice and bigotry fade when people know people. That's been my experience in Egypt, Japan, and right here in Nebraska. My stereotyped notions of conservatives have given way to a much richer, nuanced understanding, and I believe the reverse is true. I remain convinced that their positions on most issues are wrong, but (blatant hypocrites aside), I respect them as fellow Americans and human beings, and personally know and like a great many of them. You should give it a try. Your life will be better for it, and your country will, too.