I’ve served on more than half a dozen broad right-left task forces to find common ground on various issues from theological to social. These well-intentioned efforts sincerely tried to find areas of agreement among people with vastly different worldviews. In every experience I’ve had, the process is generally dominated by the left, with at most a few token right participants. In most task forces, the representatives from the left are policy experts, while the right is mostly big names with little policy experience and naïve as to the rhetorical nuances and maneuvers leftists employ to obfuscate and conceal their intent and objectives in policy debates.
Every task force in my experience disintegrated into the left pressuring the right to cave on principle in order to reach “consensus.” Then there was inevitable “outrage” that the right was unwilling to “compromise.” You might, rightly, wonder why only the right is expected to “compromise.” How is that “consensus”? Equally puzzling is how in this era of moral relativism and the gospel of not being judgmental, the left tries to impose its views with the fervor of a first-century zealot. We hear calls for imprisoning, or worse, those who disagree about anthropomorphic climate change.
My experience working on the Teen Pregnancy Task Force is a microcosm of the broader society when it comes to reaching common ground.
Years ago, I was invited to participate in a task force organised by the former surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher. I initially declined Dr. Satcher’s invitation to participate in the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Task Force because I doubted that we could ever reach common ground. As we talked, however, I envisioned the group agreeing that at the very least, middle school and high school teens should abstain from sex — that they might all agree that teens should be focusing on academics, sports, art, music, and other activities rather than getting sidetracked into sex with all its risks and problems. So I finally agreed to participate in the task force with the expectation that we could, at the very least, agree on that common ground — that value, if you will.
At a weekend brainstorming retreat about halfway through the two-year task force process, I proposed a project. We’d develop a “food pyramid” type of poster that we’d distribute across the country that could be placed on the inside of bathroom stalls in middle and high schools. The pyramid would have five layers, with “Values” as the bottom layer and “Birds and Bees” at the top – meaning that teaching values (respect for others, etc.) is the foundation of all interactions with others and especially for personal and intimate relationships. I stressed that different groups would have the responsibility of defining “values” according to their beliefs and priorities.
Dr. Satcher declared it a “brilliant” idea, and there was enthusiastic discussion for an hour or so before the end of the retreat.
Weeks later, at a subsequent task force meeting, I was appalled to find that the representatives from NARAL and Planned Parenthood had come prepared for vehement opposition to the pyramid, because having “values” as the “foundation” implied a hierarchy where “values” carried greater “moral” significance, and that was unacceptable.
The pyramid poster idea was killed. Soon after, I resigned from the task force because it was apparent that it would end up being just another useless endeavor without any significant outcome from all the hours expended and brainpower contributed. (Here is a brief summary from my later article explaining the pyramid based on my values and worldview.)
My Task Force experience causes me to be very doubtful about whether finding common ground is even possible in today’s polarised culture.
It was not always so. I was an undergraduate at a liberal arts college where listening to, understanding, and appreciating different points of view was a goal of the educated person. In graduate school, being conversant in disparate philosophies and ideologies was necessary. As an intercollegiate debater and later a top-ten debate coach, I valued looking at all sides of an issue. Academic rigor used to require intellectual diversity; now, according to the Econ Journal Watch, liberal professors outnumber conservative ones 12 to 1 in the nation’s colleges and universities. Civil discourse has essentially disappeared in favor of protest demonstrations — including looting and violence by Antifa and other radical activists — to prevent the expression of unwelcome conservative opinions.
Formerly, we could talk about the philosophical differences between conservatives and liberals, but increasingly, those differences are irrelevant. According to UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, college students are “increasingly disengaged from the academic experience.” As one student put it, “why are colleges trying to force this stuff down our throats and make us think when our minds and opinions are already formed?” Or as a popular T-shirt puts it, “you can lead me to college, but you can’t make me think.” We’ve all seen the hilarious television interviews where rioters have no idea why they are rioting.
Governance used to be based on the cliché that politics is the art of the possible. Civility was considered the underpinning of discourse, whether around the dinner table or in Congress. The informal “rules of engagement” required listening respectfully and being willing to “engage in principled compromise” in order to accomplish a public good.
In his book, The Peace that Almost Was, Mark Tooley documents a dramatic historical instance where compromise could not be reached. Tooley describes the last conference before the Civil War at Washington’s elegant Willard Hotel where participants tried to “craft a compromise to protect slavery and thus preserve the union and prevent war.” Tooley concludes “that no matter the shared faith, family, and friendships of the participants, ultimately no compromise could be reached.” The price of failure — the Civil War — was a tragedy of the highest order.
Today’s disagreements are not settled by holding a conference at the Willard Hotel; instead, they are battles of us against them without nuance or negotiation. They are characterized by fake news, personal destruction, special agendas, name-calling, riots, and good-versus-evil rhetoric that is the essence of “dirty politics.”
Instead of such polarisation, we need more leaders with the courage to take a different path. For instance, Foster Friess, prominent conservative philanthropist, has started a project, “Return to Civility“, that challenges Americans who strongly disagree with each other politically to “work together on projects that serve the common good.” Friess stresses the need to “endorse projects that get results” and “make life better for others.” That is the type of coalition necessary to change the trajectory of increased hostility and invective between conservatives and Liberals.
In sum, there can be no compromise until there is agreement on “principled compromise,” where there is mutual respect for both the opposition and the process of debating differences honestly and honorably. There will be no common ground until people are willing to face the true basis of their differences — factually instead of emotionally — to face the degree to which their goals boil down the gratification of being in control, having power, or having their own way. Only then will we be able to “form a more perfect union” for the ultimate goal of preserving individuals’ freedom to hold their own beliefs — even age-old opinions as well as tried and true traditions that do not conform to the latest fad. Can we recover this hallowed principle that served us well as common ground?