Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Disagreeable Agreement and Greed

The Pew Research findings last week show a nation deeply divided. Its report makes it sound like Americans can’t agree on anything. I disagree. We overwhemlingly agree that we strongly disagree. That’s a start.

1019greedThe 10 subjects Pew researchers used to probe our national divisiveness weren’t policy choices, such as raising the minimum wage or bombing insurgents in Iraq. They involved questions about fundamental beliefs – questions about poor people, black people, immigrant people and gay people.

The answers to the questions revealed less about commonly held facts than deeply held opinions. The answers revealed that people on both sides of the political spectrum have increasingly divergent views, which they express with growing  animosity. It has reached a point where people on one side of the great chasm of beliefs see the people on the other side as a threat and a danger.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow zeroed in on the dangers of alienation, saying a nation divided by blind allegiance to ideology is a prescription for dysfunctional government – or regions full of blue states and red states. When people only trust people who agree with them, real debate never occurs and chronic problems never get addressed.

“Apostles of passion,” Blow says, rarely make good politicians who grub around, often in unseemly ways, looking for compromises that work on problems that matter.

If Henry Clay, known as the Great Compromiser, lived today, it is doubtful he would have been celebrated in every city and village from Washington, DC to his home country in Kentucky. Liberals and conservatives alike would have denounced Clay as a man without principles. He would denounced on Fox News and MSNBC. He would lose a primary election.

People loved Clay because he believed in progress. There’s a question today whether Americans share that love. To some progress is the road to perdition. According to the Pew poll, 66 percent of “consistently conservative” people believe poor people have it easy because they get government benefits, 73 percent believe the government can’t afford to do much more to help the needy and 59 percent think stricter environmental laws cost too many jobs and hurt the economy. The respective percentages for “consistently liberal” people are  26 percent, 34 percent and 24 percent. And the gap is widening year by year.

Differences exist on other issues, but are trending in the same direction. Forty-six percent of consistent conservatives view immigrants as an economic burden, but that is down from 64 percent in 1994. Interestingly, consistent liberals were pretty much in the same place as their conservative counterparts in 1994, but they have moved a little more sharply, with only 27 percent holding that view today. There also is a parallel pattern of growing acceptance of homosexuality, though the absolute difference is still stark.

Differences are deeper and common ground, where compromise might gestate, is becoming scarcer. The willingness to look for or abide common ground is going extinct.

While pundits, talking heads and cultural anthropologists fret about this fracture, there is, so to speak, a silver lining. If we admit we think people with opposite views are idiots, then we will have rediscovered, unintentionally of course, some common ground. We will agree, at last, on something: We are dealing with fools.

Problem SolvedMore important, since we stipulate our counterparts are total putzes, we no longer need to keep mentioning it. We can spend our time instead finding out what those putzes are willing to sacrifice to get a win. We will have stumbled onto the one compunction that trumps ideology and unites quarreling and quarrelsome peoples – greed.

We will back on ground that politicians and most of us know all too well. Unseemly self-interest. We will return to the time when we stabbed people in the back instead of stared in disgust at them over a gaping canyon.

Our common ground will be bloody. It might even involve collective guilt and pangs of regret. But our problem will be solved. We will once again be disagreeably in agreement.



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