Loving Our Neighbor- Even When We Disagree

By Joan Blades

As a founder of MoveOn.org, I have seen partisan fighting rage back and forth for better than 18 years. I don't see either side winning decisively. In fact, I've concluded that we are all losing. We are losing treasured relationships. We are losing goodwill toward our fellow citizens. We are losing our recognition that we are one country--so many of us see red states and blue states rather than the United States. Our conflicts are paralyzing us, keeping us from accomplishing even things we agree about and ceding power to interests that benefit from our discord.

I'm not saying advocacy is bad. It is honorable and important to fight for what we believe is right. And elections are by their nature adversarial contests where one candidate wins and one loses. This said, for our democracy to function we must be able to trust the integrity of our electoral process, and we must be able to rely on some shared facts.

I have chosen to step away from the fight over the big issues because there are plenty of people already doing that. I choose to invest my energies in exploring whether we can rediscover how to work together for the common good. We all want peace and prosperity. I believe our deeply-held common values have the power to restore our ability and willingness to constructively engage the people with whom we disagree.

In my view, the most pressing issue we face is climate change. I'm afraid, though, that adversarial methods aren't up to the challenge of devising a solution. I also believe it's time for us to decide that nuclear weapons no longer belong in anyone's arsenal, including our own. I suspect there is much more common ground concerning this issue than anyone realizes. One matter on which I know there is much agreement is the dangers of a nuclear accident, especially owing to the instability of ICBMs. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, a Democrat, is leading an initiative on this issue that includes key Republican leaders.

There are issues we simply are failing to address. I remain heartbroken by the neglect of children, the mentally ill, and homeless people. More focus on our shared aspirations might allow us to envision solutions to some of these problems.

Developing understanding, trust, and relationships makes space for greater creativity and generosity when solving problems. Criminal justice reform has achieved a new prominence in public awareness thanks to efforts by folks on both the left and right. Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, and the members and leadership of the Tea Party and MoveOn, agree that too many people are in prison and that our drug policy is not working. Collaborations have created political conditions that allow leaders in California, Texas, and Georgia to brag about reducing their prison populations. Laws and enforcement practices are beginning to change, and prison populations are declining, because right and left are working together to create policies that benefit us all.

I try to listen deeply to my conservative friends. These wonderful, smart, caring people hold beliefs so very different from my own that at times I think my head may explode. We may have to agree to disagree for the time being. When that happens, I simply have to sit with the tension. There is a great deal I don't yet understand, and I realize there are some things about which we will never agree. Even so, we can continue to value and respect each other.

I'm learning to have faith that, if we are in right relationship to one another, good things will happen. We are seeing now just how negatively we are affected by poor relationships. I do not know with any specificity what good things might come from the practice of being in right relationships, but I am convinced that achieving better results requires that we do something different. If we are decent people, not indifferent to each other's well- being, we will find ways to help each other meet our core needs. If we can do that, almost certainly we will address our problems more effectively--perhaps dramatically so.

Thirty years ago, I was a divorce mediator and wrote one of the first books in this field. It was evident that adversarial divorces were toxic for children (and weren't much good for the parents). Parents who committed themselves to mediating divorce and custody agreements put themselves in a better position to care for their children. Because they had a working relationship, they were able to renegotiate their responsibilities as their children's needs changed.

The same principle must be applied to politics and our civic life. Addressing significant problems optimally requires us to transcend the partisan fight. We need to draw on the best minds. Obamacare was a start to solving the urgent problem of millions of uninsured Americans. But it was only a start. Some estimates suggest that the two sides agree on 85 percent of the questions that must be addressed. Yet the issue has been defined in a way that has made constructive change very difficult. With Democrats in a defensive crouch and Republicans saying they will "repeal and replace," improving what we had was never even on the table.

We cannot afford to take this approach to the issue of climate change, nuclear weapons, or even the economy. We must have the capacity to correct mistakes, make improvements, and exhibit the flexibility and agility we need to optimize our responses as we learn from our actions.

I will no doubt fail at times in my attempt to step away from the fight. I am after all steeped in partisan politics, and I am appalled by this recent election. This is all the more reason to do this work. My intent is to treat everyone with respect, co-host Living Room Conversations with my conservative friends, look for common ground, work collaboratively whenever possible, and create a world in which everyone has dignity while preserving and promoting my progressive principles. We all want our children to inherit a country and a world that they can pass on to their children, proud that together we cared for the needs of future generations.

Joan Blades is a co-founder of LivingRoomConversations.org, MomsRising.org, and MoveOn.org. She is a Great Work Cultures champion and co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace and The Motherhood Manifesto. She is a true believer in the power of citizens to rebuild respectful civil discourse while embracing our core shared values.

This column was taken with permission from The Transpartisan Review.