Agree to agree

The upcoming presidential election has been fraught with disagreement since its candidates first began their arduous paths to the White House. One is left wondering who, exactly, these extremist nut jobs are.

By Matt Barnum

The upcoming presidential election has been fraught with disagreement since its candidates first began their arduous paths to the White House. On issues ranging from taxes to Iraq to health care, the candidates have raised legitimate and important differences. Yet there’s one thing Barack Obama and John McCain agree on: the evils of excessive partisanship in politics.

In discussing the subject at their respective conventions, the candidates’ words were essentially interchangeable. “The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook…. What has also been lost is our sense of common purpose,” intoned Obama. “The constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn’t a cause. It’s a symptom…. I’ve worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed,” asserted McCain.

If everyone just worked together and got their hands a little dirty, both claim, we could solve all our country’s problems. It’s that easy.

This is supposed be encouraging, but instead it’s disheartening, as it raises the question, why hasn’t it happened yet?

In 2000, when Dick Cheney accepted the Republican nomination for vice president, he complained that Washington, D.C., “has often become a scene of bitterness and ill will and partisan strife.” The next day, George Bush talked up his bipartisan credentials, saying, “I work with Republicans and Democrats to get things done.” Earlier in the campaign the then-governor had claimed that he would “end the arms race of anger” in our nation’s capital.

It’s obvious why no one trusts campaign promises anymore.

Politicians always complain when partisanship rears its supposedly ugly head. Perhaps that’s understandable inasmuch as it’s an easy applause line, something that can always be pointed to when times are bad. But it’s not just politicians. In editorial pages and on cable-news talk shows, commentators regularly bemoan and vilify each party’s “fringe,” “extreme base,” and “far-right/left ideologues.”

One is left wondering who, exactly, these extremist nut jobs are.

They’re simply people, no different than you or I, who care about policy and have opinions about what the ideal society looks like and what the best way to achieve that ideal is.

In his convention speech, Obama, to his credit, provided examples of where Republicans and Democrats could come together. It’s telling, though, that even many of these handpicked cases in point are off the mark: “Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when…an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers,” he said.

Well I know someone who benefits from that transaction: the employer, who gets to pay a lower wage. The illegal workers themselves and the customers of the company (who will pay lower prices if the employer pays less for labor) also benefit. Most public-policy issues aren’t simple; there are usually both winners and losers. It’s disconcerting that the Illinois senator refuses, at times, to acknowledge this simple truth.

Obama is on more solid footing when he calls for, as he did at the convention, policy aimed at reducing the number of abortions. Yet I suspect that most people who are deeply concerned about stemming the abortion rate disagree with Obama on the core of the issue: whether or not it should be legal. Like it or not, the best way to cut back on abortion is to outlaw it.

The why-can’t-we-just-get-along narrative is a siren song perpetuated by both politicians and pundits—but it simply doesn’t work.

Of course, there are times—during a disaster, for example—when sheer competence is all that is required from our leaders. It’s also true that at other times politics reaches a deadlock, where even things that most everyone agrees on are unable to get done. In both cases, it is important that the game of politics doesn’t blind politicians from the reality of life.

That said, on policy—regarding both what the problem is and how to solve it—the odds are good that reasonable people will disagree. And that’s fine; that’s what America signed on for when it became a democracy.

It’s worth noting that it is most often through strife that there is progress. The most stirring and enduring moments in our history have not been when people have come together—they’ve been through disagreement, when Americans have fought against others for what they believed was right.