Men might be from Mars and women from Venus, but at least we’re in the same solar system. When it comes to politics, liberals and conservatives can’t agree on what the problems are much less solutions. We can blame the politicians for not making progress on the big issues of our time, but until Americans share a common truth about what those issues are we won’t move an inch.
An AP poll found that 74 percent of Americans had no confidence in the federal government’s ability to tackle our biggest problems, but the fault lies not with the politicians but the idiots who elect them. We have met the enemy, and boy howdy is he us.
Take global warming. Liberals—and virtually the entire scientific community—agree that human activity is changing the climate in dangerous ways. Conservatives, such as Louisiana state Rep. Lenar Whitney, claim that it is “greatest deception in the history of mankind.” This isn’t a fight over where to set the thermostat. This is a fight over whether there is a thermostat.
Conservatives believed government spending was holding our economy back. Others, such as liberal economist Paul Krugman, argued that we needed a bigger stimulus to replace the hole left by a cautious and wounded private sector. Krugman has a Nobel Prize in economic, and conservatives had talking points, but who are you going to believe?
Liberals see the border children as refugees fleeing violent drug gangs in Central America. Conservatives see criminals spreading exotic diseases. Conservatives want to send the National Guard, liberals the Red Cross.
Conservatives think impeaching the President is a perfectly reasonable response to Bill Clinton lying about being unfaithful to Hillary. They think impeaching Barack Obama is logical because, in the words of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, “there’s no doubt he’s done plenty of things worthy of impeachment.”
Liberals think impeachment should be reserved for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” that is, violating the oath of office.
The list goes on, but I can’t. It’s too depressing. The impasse seems unmovable. Progress looks impossible when we’re seeing the world so differently.
There are bad marriages with better prospects for success and healing than Congress, but politicians aren’t the problem, just the symptom. It’s our fault. We’re the rocket scientists who put them there in the first place.
Republicans and Democrats can’t start working together in Washington until we — you, me, your neighbor with the yappy dog, your kid’s teacher — have a shared understanding of where we are as a country. We need to agree on the same truth — global warming is real, for example, and it’s our fault—before we can compromise on a solution.
A future based on cooperation and mutual understanding is much too sincere, wise, and smart to be my idea, but I did read it in a book. My friend Chris Tomlinson wrote “Tomlinson Hill,” a history of his slave-holding Texas family and their former slaves who took the Tomlinson name after emancipation. He wrote this book after covering the election of Nelson Mandela as a journalist for the Associated Press and witnessing South Africa’s peaceful transition from Apartheid to a black majority.
“It was inspiring to me to be in South Africa after the election and to see that reckoning. Bishop Desmond Tutu established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and at the time, his argument was that before there can be reconciliation, you have to have a sharing of the truth and it has to be a common truth. One community can’t have one idea of what happened and the other community ... a different idea. If you want them to reconcile, they have to agree about what happened. And that requires — for lack of a better word — confession and contrition,” Tomlinson said on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
It’s humbling to know that the United States needs to take a page from South Africa if we want to make our democracy work again, but Tutu is right: The truth must come before reconciliation. If we want relative peace and real progress in Washington, we need to all agree—even if we don’t like it—on an evidence-based version of reality. If we do that, we shall overcome.
(Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.)