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Across the red-blue divide: How to start a conversation

Toning down our opinions will ratchet up our understanding - and the welfare of the nation.

By Daniel Yankelovich / October 15, 2004


At a dinner party for friends and business associates: The conversation turns to politics and to speculation about who will win the neck-and-neck race for president. The host makes a crack about putting an end to the administration's tactics of the "big lie" in its Iraq policy. One of the guests gets up from the table, barely able to contain his anger.

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"I call that downright unpatriotic," he spits out between clenched teeth and leaves the room.

When seemingly irreconcilable differences split the nation down the middle, with each half accusing the other of bad faith, paralysis sets in. Polarization solidifies into gridlock, and gridlock blocks us from coping with our most urgent problems. When polarized, we cannot form the kind of consensus needed to take effective action. The glue that binds our diversity together dissolves. We are prevented from reaching truths we desperately need for our future safety and survival.

What strikes me most about "Talking With the Enemy," the series of commentaries starting today, is the tough-mindedness of the writers considering America's polarization. None of them argues against polarization merely because it is oppositional or rudely expressed. All of them recognize that democracy does not wear dainty white gloves and speak in polite murmurings. Yet, with only one exception in this eight-part series, America's current state of mind alarms them. They fear that stark and bitter polarization over issues such as the war in Iraq endangers our future - not because the polarization makes people angry, but because it makes us dysfunctional as a society.

Democracy requires space for compromise, and compromise is best won through acknowledging the legitimate concerns of the other. We need to bridge opposing positions, not accentuate differences.

A glance at the most divisive issue in America today - the war in Iraq - demonstrates the danger of failing to build these bridges. The differences between the two political parties are stark, but they aren't irreconcilable. Both have powerful arguments. Surely the Democrats have a point in their insistence that Saddam Hussein did not attack the US on 9/11 and that Al Qaeda did - thus, US efforts should be focused on attacking Al Qaeda, not Iraq. Surely the Republicans have a point in their insistence that the US needs a long-term strategy to counter the ideological appeal of the Islamist militants to the Arab/Muslim majority - and the best way to do so may be to promote democracy in the Middle East.

In the current climate of polarization, Americans find themselves fiercely embracing one side while contemptuously dismissing the other. Not only does this one-sidedness prevent them from arriving at consensus about what should be done, it creates a mood of corrosive bitterness and anger. Worst of all, it is a formula for losing the war on terror.

Each partial framing of an issue, taken alone, sheds an imperfect light on the larger picture. Only by approaching both with an open mind can we begin to understand what we must do. Serious consideration of both positions leads directly to the kinds of questions the nation should be pondering. For example: Who is our real enemy in the war on terror? Is it a nation-state? A terrorist group? A religion? A political/ideological movement in the Muslim world? Here, if anywhere, our need for clarity is greatest - how can we successfully wage a war if we can't even agree on the identity of the enemy?