As we sit down for our extended family Thanksgiving dinner, there is a good chance that some of us will be sitting with a relative who is hurt and angry about the divisive election that happened just over two weeks ago. Our country's whole family body politic seems to be perpetually angry at each other no matter who won the election. Our seemingly endless election campaign and the hyper coverage on the 24-hour cable news channels have conditioned us to be in a constant state of anger at the other side. Some of our most negative or cynical citizens are angry at both political parties, see everyone as a sellout and often feel smug or superior by claiming it is all corrupt and nothing can be done. Of course, that doesn't stop them from perpetually writing comments on blogs or articles on how stupid and clueless the rest of us are and see not voting as a badge of their grander intelligence above the common masses. I have a relative like that – does not engage to make the world better while sneering at the rest of us for trying. (I have learned to ignore him.)
The people who sneer and don't vote remind me of a poster I saw in the 1980s where a cartoon man was tearing out his hair. The poster said, "Don't vote, it is more fun to bitch and moan." About half the country didn't vote but the rest of us, even the ones on the winning side, are now left with a much harder and less glamorous job than electioneering; we now have to make the country work. And it won't work if there is an insistence that all the people on the other side are perpetually and permanently evil.
The Deseret News had an opinion piece that looked at how our differences could work for us or against us, using nature as an example:
Nature provides an example of how two species (or political philosophies) can relate to one another. One is parasitism and the other is symbiosis.
Parasites are organisms, like the pine bark beetle, that damage or kill their host. Conservatives and liberals have both been increasingly guilty of parasitism, to the detriment of all.
Symbiosis, on the other hand, is when two species have a relationship that is mutually beneficial, even when one side is more powerful than the other.
I started a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC in the 1980s to do one thing - to look at how fraud and waste in the Department of Defense (DOD) was hurting the taxpayers and the troops. I was young and naïve and took my nonprofit charter seriously. Because I ran a tax-exempt organization - the Project on Military Procurement - I made it to be strictly nonpartisan. So I looked at weapons testing to see if the military was cheating (they were), and looked at the defense corporations to see if they were defrauding the government (they were). I also found that the enormous amounts of money pouring into the DOD, much more than we needed for our defense, was the corrupting influence and needed to be cut back. I worked hard to stay on that narrow mission to keep my credibility with the many whistleblowers and internal sources that I worked with.
The Project became very successful in its small niche, with limited resources, with lots of news stories on weapons that didn't work and expensive spare parts and overpriced budgets.
Then a very interesting thing happened. Partisan politics moved in and everyone tried to push me to endorse and move my organization into their favorite issue. The Left and their funders wanted me to do nuclear freeze issues, and the libertarians and their funders wanted me to do foreign policy issues, especially non-interventionist foreign policy issues, and the conservatives just wanted me and my pesky sources to go away. I worked hard to balance myself on this narrow fence while everyone tried to knock me off, either left or right. I lost a lot of potential funding but I also knew that if I leaned to either side, I would lose some of my valuable sources, who just wanted to stop the cheating and the fraud. It was interesting to see how uncomfortable both sides were with my insistence to stay on that fence in order to get things done.
But by doing this balancing act, I was able to get such disparate members of Congress, as then-liberal Representative Barbara Boxer and conservative Senator Chuck Grassley to work together to pass some serious military reform. It was fascinating to sit in the same room and watch them work together and actually like each other. But I could tell they also knew that, in order to work together, they had to stick to the subject at hand and not try to have a purity test on other issues. I used to frighten their staffs before such meetings by jokingly saying that we should talk about human reproduction when Boxer and Grassley arrived.
I hear journalists and commentators wax poetic about the civility during that time of the Reagan administration and a Democratic congress. I do remember that members of both sides worked more together, but they did what is being done now in a partisan way, in a bipartisan way: Make deals with the influence peddlers and lobbyists to misuse and rob the US Treasury. The problems weren't any worse then, it was just done with more faux civility among the pols.
We now have more ways to build our little safe havens of media and preach the "truth" to ourselves while demonizing the other side. The internet, Facebook and Twitter have given us much more power to express ourselves, but also the power of re-enforcing the evil of the other side.
And there are some evil people out there who denigrate the leaders of one side to the obnoxious core: The Birther movement and the tolerance of it is a good example. That type of discourse needs to be condemned by all people of good will and shunned rather than tolerated.
But our ability for more communication also gives us more opportunities. The Project on Military Procurement has morphed into a larger good government group with a wider agenda. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) still tries to stay strictly nonpartisan and work with all comers on good governance. It isn't easy. I know because I am still active in the organization as a member of the board of directors and serve as the treasurer. I have seen both sides of the political aisle try to manipulate and push POGO's efforts for their political gain. The current executive director, Danielle Brian, has written a blog post on how hard it is to try to make coalitions to get things done and stop demonizing everyone on the other side of each issue. POGO is even asking people to join in a petition campaign to help change the climate in Washington.
I recently interviewed her on this decades-old problem and she said that in order to make governance work, POGO has had to be "aggressively nonpartisan." She also said that it is time for the country to change from its "election hat" to its "governance hat." She worries that if compromise is prohibited, each side's leadership forbids its members of Congress from talking to the other side, and nothing will get done. She believes that common ground can be found and we both agree that, like Boxer and Grassley, politicos can find common principles as long as they don't push each other to be politically pure on issues that are not the subject at hand.
Here are some excerpts from her blog post on how to cure lingering election dysfunction:
The different sides actually have a lot more in common with each other than the political parties, radio talk show hosts, or cable news would like us to think. For example, conservatives, progressives and libertarians see open government as an important value - for very different reasons. But who cares why? This is common ground that can be pursued. Another example is the rising concern about the close relationship between Washington and Wall Street. It energizes both tea party and Occupy Wall Street activists. There are clearly places of strong disagreement about the role of government, but why not take the time to work on the important issues where there is agreement?
... And the final step is to look at the concept of compromise and to realize that process is not a sign of weakness, a symptom of moral turpitude, the source of all evil. Compromise is what gets things done, and done in a way that best addresses the needs of the day. Our country can't afford to tolerate the gridlock any longer. Look for moments when politicians brag about refusing to find common ground with political adversaries. Let them know they don't deserve an atta boy for that. In fact, let them know that is the reason you voted against the last person in their seat and you will throw them out, too, if they keep it up.
Many people don't know that when President Obama was Senator Obama, one of the people that he liked and worked with on issues was the very conservative Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma. President Obama and Senator Coburn still have a friendship that rises above their severe political differences and Coburn openly talks about that to the detriment of his political career. There are many things that Senator Coburn does and pushes that are factually challenged and obnoxious to any progressive or even most citizens, but he manages to pierce the bubble and still talk to President Obama.
I worked with his office during the Iraq war to try to curb the outrageous abuses of the private contractors during that war. The Senator and his staff had hearings where I testified about the war abuses. Senator Coburn did try to swim upstream with my efforts to curb the abuse during wartime, but it was very hard.
I do remember sitting in the office of one of his top aides who was surrounded by very, very graphic anti-abortion posters she was having made for other hearings. She was suspicious and asked me questions designed to flush me out politically and was at times, unlike her boss, mildly insulting because she suspected that I was not a conservative and "pure." I resisted any efforts she made to categorize me, put on my nonpartisan blinders to the posters and her insults and stuck like glue to the important problem at hand that I could do something about. I was able to get her to see how important it was to get control of these contractors because their lack of work was threating the health and safety of the troops. She calmed down and gave up trying to nail down my purity and we went on to work on our narrow issue together. I felt that this was a victory towards trying to solve the problem instead of trying to make a political point. Based on what I have read on the Obama/Coburn relationship, she has a lot to learn from her boss.
We are so lucky to live in a country where we can have this political discourse openly at our Thanksgiving table and other places without fear of imprisonment. I have been told by a British journalist that my investigations and exposes of the DOD would not be tolerated in most of the other First World countries, including his own. He actually moved to the United States in order to openly investigate national security weapons. I know that the open government door in the area of national security has been under attack, especially since 9-11, but we must use eternal vigilance to keep it open; and that won't happen without the help of people we politically might not like. We don't have to compromise our core beliefs, but we need to also not stick to unnecessary purity tests that wreck cooperation.
Before I get screaming comments on this column, it is true that one side of this formula has been much more polarizing and willing to suspend facts and use dirty tricks to slay a political opponent. The abuse is not even on both sides of the political aisle, but I am afraid that if the other side, in retaliation, tries to play the same game, they too will have to manufacture facts and idiotic conspiracies to scare their side into hate. People who do engage in this treacherous game are willing to punish the country in order to punish their political foes.
I don't want to be one of them and plan to walk that narrow fence to get things done for the good of the country. We need good governance now more than ever.
Happy Thanksgiving and find some common ground with that annoying relative, even if it isn't about politics ... everyone has something good in them, but some take more work to find it. That's life.