Three Good Reasons Why Partisans Should Engage With the ‘Other’ Side

Image courtesy Eric Byler

I am a partisan progressive. I am 34 years old, vote in every mid-term and presidential election and have never voted for a Republican in my life. I am a social justice activist and am married to one of the most prominent progressive activists in the country, Markos Moulitsas, publisher of the Daily Kos.

You can imagine his reaction when I decided to drive an hour away from our home in Berkeley, California on a Saturday afternoon to partake in a trans-partisan dialogue with three Republicans. “Why?” he asked me. “They have a different worldview than us.”

True. Our life experiences shape our politics and with that they project our worldviews. But in my line of work where I help people from all political backgrounds including the non-political, I know that, ultimately, we are all human beings first and then Americans who love this country equally. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be locking horns to get our points across!

As for the trans-partisan conversation itself, hosted by a non-profit organization called the Living Room Conversations, it went better than I thought. If anything, I wanted to keep talking with my Republican counterparts well after the two-and-a-half hours allotted! Here are three reasons why I plan to engage with them in the future:

Civil discourse is healthy for a healthy democracy.

Notice that I say “discourse” and not merely a “conversation.” We are a diverse country with an equally number of diverse opinions. There is no way we are all going to agree on every issue. However, sitting around a table and engaging in political discourse is as radical and American an idea as the revolutionaries who did so in Boston taverns over 200 years ago. This is a building block of our democracy, and unfortunately, one that rarely happens today without ugliness and bruised feelings. The Living Room Conversations co-hosts, each of whom come from different political points-of-view, ensure that this process is civil and enjoyable for all participants. In our case, Amanda and Joan established ground rules such as the importance to listen and not discount anyone’s experiences or opinions.

(Living Room Conversations co-creator and founder of MoveOn.org and MomsRising.org, Joan Blades, and Foster City Mayor Linda A. Koelling)

(I share a laugh with Rodney Ferguson, a literacy teacher, author and fellow East Bay resident, who I never met until this discussion.)

A healthy democracy is made up of truthful and open-minded individuals.

If there is one criticism I had of the Living Room Conversations, it is that there was no fact sheet on what we were discussing: money in politics. I co-hosted a trans-partisan conversation in New Hampshire with a now Republican candidate for governor there, and I, too, had wished I and my co-host, Kevin Smith, had provided a fact sheet on what we were discussing, which was global warming.

With the rise of partisan media, partisan institutes and partisanship, in general, it is very difficult for anyone to cut through the noise and get to the truth. Surely, there is a way for people on all sides of the political aisle to come up with politically neutral terminology to describe the issue, allowing participants to weigh the evidence and draw their own conclusions. That’s where having an open mind comes in.

Having clashed with polluting corporations in my line of work, I thought my opinions on the matter were set and there was nothing else to learn. An eye-opening moment for me in our discussion was when I distinguished a corporation from a union in saying that corporations are speaking on behalf of employees that have not willingly paid dues for them to do so. “They (corporations) are speaking on behalf of their shareholders,” Amanda gently corrected me.

It’s true and not an angle I had ever considered. It made me wonder why we, environmental activists, are only targeting the executive team and lobbyists of a polluting corporation and not the shareholders funding them? It’s an avenue I think environmentalists should pursue, and I for one, would never have considered if I had not engaged in this conversation. To quote a popular bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think!”

Allies may be found in the most unlikely places.

Let’s be real here. I live in Berkeley, California, and don’t normally associate with Republicans. I am sure it is the same with conservative voters who live in red areas.

Another moment of enlightenment for me was a discussion I had with Foster City Mayor Linda Koelling and Greg Conlon, a Republican candidate for the state assembly, after the conversation. The mayor was inquiring about some work I had done in California to ask legislators in Sacramento to rid certain baby products of toxic flame retardants. I realized that I had not explained the proposed bill at all – it was specific to high chairs, nursing pillows, strollers and changing pads and not baby clothes as the mayor had thought – and it was out-of-state chemical companies that funded lobbying efforts against it.

“Actually, we initially had Republican (legislators) with us since it was a de-regulation bill,” I told her. “The manufacturers were with us, too.”

She wondered why it hadn’t passed. (Now I know who I will call next time this issue comes up for a vote!) Conlon made a point that I had never considered. How much of industry opposition was its fear of being sued in the event of a fire?

For the record, the chemical companies spraying flame retardants in the foam of baby products were the main parties to oppose it. They funded, among other dirty tactics, a sham front group called “Citizens for Fire Safety.”

Conlon chuckled. “It sounds like a lawyer was behind it.” Yup! And, yes, I took Conlon’s business card at the end of our conversation, too.

I had a delightful time engaging with both of them, and next month we plan to partake in another Living Room Conversation about immigration. Also, it was a pleasure to get to know Amanda Kathryn Roman, a self-described “crunchy conservative” and grassroots trans-partisan organizer who helped Blades launch the Living Room Conversations. We are now Facebook friends.

For the first time, I also met fellow progressive Rodney Ferguson, who is a literacy teacher and author in my neck of the woods. We had promised to keep in touch. I will be seeing him next month for our Living Room Conversation about immigration.

The interaction between all of us was genuine, eye-opening and disarming. Imagine what our democracy and public discourse would look like if we repeated this on a large scale throughout our country? I say ¡Viva la revolución!

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