Lamenting a Lack of Common Ground

Discord is the political language of the moment. Democrats turn a deaf ear to Republicans, and Republicans aren't listening to Democrats. In his new book "I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican: A Survival Guide for Conservatives Marooned Among the Angry, Smug and Terminally Self-Righteous," Harry Stein wonders why people on opposite sides of the ideological fence have such a hard time talking to each other.


Around ten years ago, during the waning years of the Clinton Administration, I published a book with a title I thought was both amusing and provocative: "How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace)."

It was amusing, all right - at least to fellow conservatives, especially those who'd made the same once-unfathomable journey from left to right. But the book seemed only to provoke horrified contempt in liberals. I'm not sure a single one even read it - and I include members of my own family.

(Julia Ewan/The Washington Post)

Sad to say, I no longer entertain the illusion that mere words, even those laced with good humor, can bridge the yawning political divide.

Living as I do in a New York suburb that, ideologically speaking, is an extension of the Upper West Side, I titled my latest book, on conservatives marooned in dark blue milieus, "I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican" -- those very words having been spat my way at a local dinner party by someone I'd known all of ten minutes. (As it happens, I'm not a Republican, but this was during the presidential campaign, and I'd had the temerity to mildly raise the question of Obama's inexperience). This time I made clear, right up front in the book's introduction, truth in advertising-wise, that its aim was not to persuade or enlighten, but to connect with people who already agreed with me.

Saves a lot of trouble.

Of course, there are still a few pitiful idealists in our midst. My wife, bless her, is one. (I document this in the book, hoping that not too may readers will laugh at her). She actually writes thoughtful letters to the most intemperate left-leaning pundits expecting that someday one might respond in kind, (or at all). She's also been known to throw what she calls "purple parties," in which she brings together various women from opposite sides to seek and, with varying degrees of politeness, fail to find common ground.

Obviously, such encounters would bear considerably more fruit if there were common ground. But how, in a reflexively left-of-center neighborhood like ours, where the term fascist comes trippingly off so many lips, do you engage in an open and generous-spirited back and forth on, say, abortion? Indeed, there are very many places in this country where my neighbors would be regarded with equal scorn for attempting to argue the pro-choice position - not that any of them would ever likely visit, let alone live in, such places.

Sure, there are extraordinary circumstances where we come together as a people, united in common purpose. . The weeks after 9/11 were remarkable in that regard. And, yes, President Obama truly spoke for us all in calling Kanye West a "jackass."

There is some solace in the realization that Americans have always despised one another on political grounds. In my own lifetime, the intensity of feeling during Vietnam and Watergate, not to mention the Clinton impeachment and the Bush era, surely surpasses that of today; and of course in both the Revolution and the Civil War, we engaged in wholesale fratricide. Thus it has been, and thus it shall always be.

So probably the best we can hope for is to make peace in our own little corners of the world.

Speaking of fratricide, tensions between my older brother and me happily have eased considerably, since he has lately seen the light and come over to my side.

But our father is a far dicier proposition. A committed leftist from way back, his politics are his religion, in his mind the font and expression of superior morality; which in our family, as in so many others, has helped make for some serious unpleasantness. He despises most of my views and those worthies who publicly espouse them, and I feel the same way about him and his. Unsurprisingly, things got especially bad during the Bush years. There was one fight during the Duke rape case that nearly did us in.

But that was the low point, and we've made a real effort since. We talk only sparingly of such things these days, and then very carefully. Above all, we try to keep it light.

It was clear we'd turned a corner about a year ago, when he called to tell me about an episode from the day before. It seems he and my stepmother were driving in Connecticut when he started feeling ill. She called ahead to the next town, and by the time they got there, an EMT crew was waiting.

"How do you feel?" asked the head EMT guy.

"I don't feel so good."

"What hurts you?"

"It hurts me that George Bush is president."

My father cracked up repeating his own line to me and frankly, at that moment, it was impossible not to laugh with him.

By Steven E. Levingston |  September 25, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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See, Steven, that wasn't so bad, was it? It was a nice first step. Of course, the next step is to actually allow an author to advance a conservative position on a policy question in Short Stack.

Posted by: alvint | September 25, 2009 9:17 AM

Been awhile since I've been on here but, I was originally attracted to this Blog over several other great ones here at WashPost for the BOOKS. Short stack . . . as in 5 books per post? What's up with the editorials, and don't you guys already have an Opinion Section for those?

Posted by: ewkrause | September 26, 2009 1:11 AM

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