Something More Than Polarization

We can't afford to simply indulge the passion of our differences. Not anymore. The challenges we face as a nation are just too great. It is time for us to practice a politics that doesn't fit the business model of Fox v. MSNBC.
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At the end of September, I helped organize a conference at Harvard about the idea of calling a(n Article V) constitutional convention. The event was co-hosted by the Tea Party Patriots. And although that organization has not endorsed a convention, there are many conservatives and libertarians who do support such a call. The conference was designed to explore the possibility, and to demonstrate that people from the Left (my friends) and that people from the Right (the Tea Party Patriots, and some of my friends) could discuss these issues like decent souls do.

At the opening session, Tea Party Patriot co-founder Mark Meckler gave by far the most impressive speech of the event. In it, he condemned the business model of hate. "The politicians profit," Meckler told us, "when we are inflamed against each other." It was an inspiring charge to launch our two day conference, and it set the tone for an extraordinary and productive weekend.

Dial forward one month: A few days ago I received an email from the Tea Party Patriots. The aim of the missive was to insist that the #Occupy movement was not the Tea Party. The #Occupiers, the letter stated, were "America-hating anarchists who want to take their anger out on ordinary, productive citizens." And then immediately after that charge, the letter had a link in bold: "Please make an urgent online contribution of $15, $20, $25, $50, $100 or whatever you can afford to Tea Party Patriots right away."

This same dynamic happens the other way round.

On Saturday I was wandering through the #OccupySeattle protest. I checked my email, and someone had forwarded a link to a tweet about a speech at the #OccupyChicago event. David Zirin, a writer for the wonderful, and left-wing, The Nation (and sometimes, for HuffPo), was leading a teach-in. He was also leading the audience in a chorus of boos about an idea that I had advanced at a teach-in at #OccupyKSt earlier that week. The tweet quoted Zirin saying "I can tell by your boos you agree with me that that's horseshit." Shortly afterwards, there were echos in the twitter-verse about my "dumb idea."

Here was my "dumb idea": At the @OccupyKSt teach-in, I told the audience that they should hold firm to their liberal views. That I did not believe in compromising one's values. That liberals had compromised enough.

But that if the #Occupy movements are to have any long term effect, they need to recognize the diversity that is this Nation, and to reach out to others whose beliefs they don't share. That the movement needs to find the common ground between the populists on the Right and the populists on the Left. And that in that common ground lies the only potential for real reform. "You may or may not believe in capitalism," I told the #Occupiers, "but no one believes in crony capitalism, and crony capitalism is precisely the corruption that is our Congress." So build two lists of demands, I said later at that event: One of what "We believe." One of what "We ALL believe." And let that second list then found a movement that will restore this Republic.

That was my "horseshit," as Zirin tagged it. And as he tweeted me in a followup, "Given the Tea Party's politics, I don't think you can have it both ways."

"I'm not having 'it' both ways," I responded. "There are two 'its.'" And "If you can't rec[ognize the] diversity of US, [you are] not US."

"If you champion tea party alliances," Zirin retorted, with the almost irresistible snarkiness of Twitter, "don't be surprised if theres no US. Just 'you.'"

I'm a fan of The Nation. I wish more people would read it. And better, subscribe to it. I hope it succeeds in seeding the spread of activism on the Left. I hope we on the Left can once again find the courage to call ourselves "Liberals" and be proud of it. The Nation is a constant argument for that courage.

But I increasingly think that we all -- on the Left and the Right -- need to carry around two hats. One hat should say, "Working for my side." The other should say, "Working for U.S." Both vocations are noble and fair. But they are different. It is completely legitimate for the Tea Party to rally its troops. It is the nature of modern organizing that you rally to raise money. But rallying Americans to the Right is different from rallying Americans to fix the corruption that is this government: one speaks to some of us; the other speaks to all of us. And if anyone in the Tea Party movement believes their values or ideas are going to get 80% of Americans to unite, they're deluded, or worse.

The same is true on the Left. I love the #Occupy rallies. I wish we on the Left had more of their energy to get our side off the couch and to the polls. I wish we had 10,000 teach-ins across the Nation, in living rooms as well as with #occupiers. But if some on our side think that a rhetoric rejecting free markets and demanding socialized banks (in the Left wing version of socialized, not the crony-capitalist version -- socialized risk, privatized benefit -- that they enjoy now) is going to get 80% of Americans to unite, then they are deluded or worse.

We Americans are diverse. We have different views. Some of us want more government. Some of us want less. Some think the state has done enough to achieve equality. Some think it's not begun to do its job. Some want flat taxes. Or no taxes. Some want progressive taxes. Or at least more taxes. We are different in a million ways, we Americans, but we are all equally Americans. And if you're leading a movement that won't acknowledge that difference (or more frighteningly, that believes that mere rhetoric is going to erase that difference), then you're not looking for fundamental reform. You're looking for a putsch.

This Nation needs fundamental reform. For that, our constitution requires 75% of states to agree. Thus, if we want real change, we must find those ideas upon which 75% of states can actually agree.

The challenge for all of us is whether despite our differences, there are those ideas. Whether there is common ground enough to bring about real change.

That is the question I care most about right now: finding common ground. It may not be there, but I believe it is. I've built organizations, mobilized thousands of volunteers, given hundreds of lectures, and now written a book to argue that it is. But regardless of whether there is, when I or others try to find it, or motivate people to find it, or to talk about it, or to dream for it, we're doing something different from what we do when we wear the "Working for my side" hat. Something different. And IMHO, right now, something critical and important.

So I get the need for the Tea Party to practice the politics of division. No movement does anything more. But the hard question now is whether we can also play the politics of "e pluribus unum." At Harvard, Meckler told us that the Tea Partiers "are not racists. They are not homophobes. They are your fellow citizens." That is no doubt correct -- even if there are individuals in that movement who are what the movement is not. But I've seen the #Occupiers, in now at least three cities. The same must be said of them: They are not "America-hating anarchists" -- even if there are anarchists among them. "They are our fellow citizens."

And I get the need to rally souls, as Zirin did, to address the important "issues of race, sexism, LGBT." But it can't be "horseshit," can it?, to also ask us to practice another great liberal value -- tolerance -- at least enough to talk about an alliance with those with whom we disagree. It can't be betrayal to ask whether despite our having few common ends, we might indeed have a common enemy.

Almost 225 years ago, seventy-four men huddled in a stuffy hall in Philadelphia. They met in secret and did much more than was planned when their meeting was called: they crafted a new constitution. Our constitution.

We today think of those 74 delegates as all the same: white men, who dressed the same, all coming from essentially the same class. But they were very different. There were men in that room who believed in slavery. There were men in that room who believed slavery was the moral abomination of their time.

Yet they bracketed those differences long enough to craft a Republic within which differences could be worked out. It took too long to get to the right answer about slavery. But there was ground enough in their new government to work through differences enough to save this nation.

Whatever the differences are between the Tea Party and the #occupiers, they are not as profound or as important as the difference between slave holders and abolitionists. And whatever the challenges we face today, they are not as great or difficult as the challenge of crafting a whole new form of government.

We need the courage to practice what they did. We need to put aside the business model of hate, and focus on the common ground of possibility. Americans, whether Left or Right, have lost faith in this government. Americans, whether Left or Right, believe this Congress is bought. We need a movement that can say, "whatever else we might disagree about, we all agree that this corruption must end."

For we can't afford to simply indulge the passion of our differences. Not anymore. The challenges we face as a Nation are just too great. It is time for us to practice a politics that doesn't fit the business model of Fox v. MSNBC, of The Nation v. National Review, of the Tea Party v. the gaggle of Left-leaning organizations that would claim the #Occupiers. It might not pay, it might not drive ad revenues, it might not rally members: but sometimes those goals are just not the most important.

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