As a psychotherapist I've done my share of counseling squabbling couples and have learned to listen carefully to both partners in any dispute, looking for common ground to build on.
Lately I've begun to apply this method to politics, with some fascinating results. As I put aside my own particular political taste (progressive/green) and work at being as objective in following the news as I am in the counseling room, I have started to realize that each side of our current polarized society has some really valid ideas that the other refuses to hear.
When people aren't heard, they often scream louder and louder. If they still can't make themselves understood, they often retreat emotionally into disengagement or finally resort to old-fashioned hatred and even violence.
The predictable result of not listening to our fellow citizens is -- as in couple quarrels -- that divorce seems the only solution. But in US politics, there is no such thing as divorce. We tried that once (the Civil War) and the country has yet to fully recover from that horrible break-up.
So what issues am I suggesting that progressives, liberals and conservatives might actually find agreement on if they truly listened to each other?
1) Abortion. (Yes, abortion!) The hard-line left is asking for abortion on demand, making the rights of the mother primary. The hard-line right calls for no abortion ever, making the rights of the unborn child primary. There is an obvious middle ground here. If we truly listened both to women's needs and also to concerns about children, other relatives and the rest of society, we would see that the solution lies in developing a complex decision-making process, not a quick yes or no. Every case and situation is different. The interests of each woman, her potential child, the child's father, the grandparents and the wider community need to be weighed. There would probably be different rules for each stage of pregnancy, and doctors, judges and ethicists might be part of the process. It would be challenging for our country to come up with some agreed-upon way to make decisions with such deep life consequences. Would this be difficult or even impossible in our current polarized political system? Of course. But intellectually, rationally and practically, this is a path we will all surely walk before too long.
2) Taxation. The left is all for government taking care of multiple community and personal needs using tax-payer funding. The right screams "no taxation!" and wails against government expenses (unless the money goes to the military or big corporations). Again, there is a need for both sides to listen to the underlying concerns. The right has an excellent point that there needs to be a balance between the size of government and the size of the taxpayer base. They also have a legitimate concern that much money is wasted in every area of government bureaucracy and that small businesses mustn't be taxed beyond their ability to survive and create jobs. But the left is correct in bewailing the undertaxation of the very wealthy and pointing out that impoverishing public education and health care is actually penny wise and pound foolish. Again, both sides make important points and the only "win" is if all concerns are addressed in a revamping of the tax system and government spending so a healthier balance is achieved.
3) Health care. Progressives want single-payer health insurance for all, paid for by the taxpayer-funded government. Liberals want a health care system that covers everyone, preferably with a mix of private and public options. The right wants corporate insurance for those who have earned the money to afford it. Again, we need to listen to the fears behind the positions. Some on the right fear more personal taxation, oppressive government bureaucratic systems and loss of choice. Corporations fear higher health insurance costs and higher taxation - even though logic might dictate they'd be better off if the taxpayer took over the health care burden. Those on the left fear the callous greed of for-profit health insurance companies and hospitals that have financial and life-or-death power over their customers. All of these fears need to be addressed. For a rational solution, we need to look at how other countries manage with their various systems. Who are the countries with the healthiest population, the lowest infant mortality rate plus healthy economies? Do they have systems that might work for us?
4) The Environment. The right fears that protecting the rest of nature will cost human jobs and freedom. In fact, this fear is sometimes so extreme that people are conned into complete denial of all environmental problems, despite scientific studies and the evidence of their own senses. The left argues that trashing the planet has put the survival of the human race and multiple other species at risk. The solution seems obvious: rapidly fostering "no waste" green and sustainable industries and agriculture, which will create green jobs. In fact, this is what is beginning to happen all over the world, most notably in Europe and Asia. And yes, we desperately need things to progress much more quickly -- and the way to make that happen is to listen compassionately to the concerns on both sides.
5) The Economy. The right believes in free market capitalism as the solution to all problems. Liberals support regulated capitalism and a mix of government programs and private enterprises. Those further left advocate some form of democratic socialism, as in the Scandinavian countries. Greens promote sustainability, relocalization, deglobalization and "living local economies." The usual fears underlie each position: the right worries about curtailment of freedom. Those on the traditional left look to big government for answers and fear big corporations. And greens fear the environmental apocalypse and are building "lifeboats" and reinventing the economy "as if people and the planet mattered." If we listened to the concerns of each group and travelled the world to see how the various solutions are faring in other countries, perhaps we could break through our polarized viewpoints to find a way that would allow us to meet the needs of our country's people without destroying each other and the rest of the planet.
Of course we could consider many more issues that have also become unproductively polarized: drugs (treatment vs. punishment), crime, security and the media being just a few.
So what do you think? Is there any chance that we might start listening to those with whom we most disagree so we can incorporate their best ideas into our integrative solutions?