Finding common ground is not just an ideal of democratic society; it is a task of monumental effort that requires us to reject our own ideas and hold them, in common, with ideas we do not agree with. There is such discomfort in this that we generally avoid it: villainy is a comfortable foe, but nuance unmasks it. Nuance transforms villainy into foolishness, and our righteous anger crumbles into confusion and pity.
I wrote not long ago that there is no common ground left—that we have occupied every inch of it with partisan certainty and left nothing in the middle. Perhaps this is why there is such an appetite for lies these days: there is no ground left to seize, unless it be wholly invented. There is no battle left to win, only scraps to scrabble over on the edges. But create a lie, and you can draw a new line down some imaginary patch of ground, and crow heartily as you defend it. Create a villain, and you can occupy new ground.
But I believe finding common ground is the only path forward, and that requires nuance. Yes, we need righteous anger and villains to motivate us. But they must be few and far between. If we want common ground, if we want a united states, that ground must be worked and planted, not occupied.
I am not, by any means, suggesting that we should respect ideologies of persecution and hate. Some ideologies do not deserve respect—but neither do they die when they are at war with one another. Warring ideologies grow and entrench. Take a powerful ideology and throw another in its face and it will only grow stronger.
This is a hard thing for those on the left to acknowledge. Without nuance, this sounds like saying we should abandon the fight against racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and so many others, and worry more about making our ideas more palatable to our political opponents. Without nuance, this sounds like appeasement.
But it is more intelligible if put in more familiar terms: if I were to argue that American military actions and regime change abroad are fueling a growth in radical ideologies, few liberals would disagree. Few would think the solution is not to fight terrorism, and most would acknowledge that there is no simple solution.
There is no simple solution here either. Prejudice can and must be fought, and the fight must also coexist with a search for common ground. We must name the persecutions visited on the rest of America by its darkest nature, because doing so is critical for protecting the rest of America. Yet, we must also step across the divide. So many Americans are going so very low—we must go higher.
I think common ground begins by making other views welcome on our side, but that alone is not enough. I think common ground begins by seeking it, but that is also not enough.
In returning to my initial thought, that all the common ground has been occupied, I am forced to conclude that any true search for common ground must erase the battle lines we have drawn. We must voluntarily give up the moral high ground, erase our lines in the sand, and make room for spaces we can visit together.
What does that mean, in practice? I am not entirely sure, but two things come immediately to mind.
First, that we can’t afford to pick our allies based on policies and ideologies both. Too often we on the progressive left insist not just that our allies do the right thing, but that they do it for the right reasons. Yet that is simply a way of excluding, as allies, anyone who disagrees with us too often. To defuse an ideological war, we must be willing to set aside ideology when our priorities for action align. We cannot insist that our opponents convert—merely that they, too, set aside their ideologies for the sake of expediency.
Second, we must be willing to set aside our labels when some of our values align. Too often on both sides, we force our political opponents into boxes and refuse to let them out. We erase the nuance, because villainy is more comfortable. But in doing so, we divvy up the common ground between us and leave nowhere overlapping. I think when we find the few values we have left in common, we should guard them jealously.
For those of us least under threat, finding these values and winning these allies is up to us. The Americans who will be persecuted cannot safely do this—their liberties, lives, and happiness are under threat already. But some of us can.
And a third thing occurs to me, a thing that I have already advocated for many reasons: we must embrace nuance and take our first comfort there. Then, when we seek common ground, we need not reject our solace to find it.
Image Credit: Terry Lawson