Our Missed Opportunity

Things are ugly right now.

After the healthcare bill passed, we all heard how a few so-called tea baggers hurled racial slurs and other insults at Democratic lawmakers, broke windows of party offices and engaged in other such foolery.

Yesterday, I saw Mitt Romney’s new book on display in Borders. It’s called “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” – an obvious swipe at Obama liberals for acting as if the United States is something short of infallible.

Glenn Beck absurdly compares progressives to Hitler and Stalin, and warns us that universal healthcare will take us down a slippery slope to tyranny.

On the other side, countless voices on the left dismiss the tea baggers entirely as the wingnut fringe and draw as much attention as they can to the most outrageous, classless antics of its most extreme members.

When Bush was president, the left portrayed him as an idiot, a manchild, a cowboy. Cheney was Darth Vader. They and their cohorts were bent on destroying everything America stands for. The Bush Administration and their supporters in turn portrayed the left as unpatriotic, soft, weak, elitist.

I admit I’m pretty squarely on one side of this ideological divide, but I’m tired of all of it.

For a decade now, we’ve all been fooled and misled into hating each other. Kids in their teens and twenties must think America has always been this divided, this polarized, and that’s sad.

The saddest thing is how it distracts us from all the things we have in common.

The tea-baggers are mad at the government, whom they perceive has been bought by Wall Street. The anger over the healthcare bill is about money (unemployment, the deficit), and it can be seen as a proxy for their anger at Wall Street – whose robber barons broke the economy, stole from the American people and then walked away richer than before. But guess what? Progressives are mad at Wall Street too. So why are we attacking each other? Wall Street must love watching us fight amongst ourselves. They could not have engineered a situation that better enables them to keep on doing what they’re doing to us – or maybe that’s exactly what’s going on. Either way, I really don’t want to let them win.

As much as it pains me not to argue with climate change deniers, Sarah Palin lovers and Fox News watchers, I hereby call for a truce. We will continue to disagree about global warming, same-sex marriage, Sarah Palin, President Obama and a host of other things. One side will make a little headway, then the other. What little progress is made by either side will be so full of compromises that it won’t satisfy anyone.

Conservatives don’t think we should all pay hundreds of billions of dollars for universal healthcare. Liberals don’t want to pay hundreds of billions of dollars to wage war in Iraq. How about we call it even now and agree that we’ve all been screwed.

Let’s not let our disagreements stop us from making real progress in the areas where we agree. Like Wall Street. Congress is finally getting ready to debate legislation to regulate the financial industry. Let’s pay attention to this, and let’s refuse to allow the political parties, the media pundits and the lobbyists pit us against each other. Let’s not blindly listen to supposed experts whose impassioned arguments invent an enemy – a “them” – that isn’t Wall Street itself. Let’s think critically for ourselves, and give each other credit for doing the same, instead of shoving each other into knee-jerk categories like “tea-baggers” and “progressives”. Let’s assume good intentions in our fellow Americans.

And after we’re done with Wall Street, there are a lot of other things we agree on. Chew on these statistics:

A recent poll found that 60% of Americans feel that improving treatment of women in other countries is “very important” and that 30% feel it’s “somewhat important.” Despite all our other differences, that’s 90% of Americans who agree on something. That’s huge. And it’s something we actually have the power to change.

Here’s another example… I was working in Southeast Asia in 2004 when the tsunami devastated the region. Despite our differences, Americans stepped up and donated 1.2 billion dollars to tsunami relief. 30% of American households contributed to the cause – across all the ideological lines that seem important enough to divide us so much of the time.

These are just a couple of random examples, but the point is let’s ignore rhetoric that would turn us against each other. Let’s be careful about how we listen to the Karl Roves and Glenn Becks on the right, and the Bill Mahers, Olbermans and Moveon.orgs on the left. Better yet, let’s take a break altogether from listening to people who would persuade “us” to oppose “them.”

Let’s not get so sidetracked by the things that divide us that we become unable to make progress in the areas where we share common ground.