Common Ground as Compromise
One of the commonly recurring themes in political discussion with people in my rough age cohort (i.e., 60 +/- a decade) is the loss of “common ground.” The discussion often leads to the conclusion that what has b been “lost” is the ability to respectfully discuss partisan political positions in order to identify a compromise position that is acceptable (though not optimum) to the contending parties.
I agree that this understanding of “common ground” has been significantly attenuated over the past couple of decades. As shown in this figure, between 1994 and 2004 the median political positions between Democrats and Republicans was reasonably close and thus supportive of compromise in many cases. However, between 2004 and 2017 the gap widened significantly, creating a chasm that is difficult to bridge through compromise. So, yes, in this contemporary political environment it has indeed become far more difficult to find “common ground” with political opponents.
I believe that this definition of “common ground” is neither universally valid nor historically true. And, when people voice deep concern about this loss they may well mean something else; something more disturbing and destructive than a simple inability to find a compromise.
It isn’t difficult to find cases in our national history in which compromise eluded our polity. The most extreme example is the Civil War. However, this extreme (and tragic) example isn’t helpful here since the result was literal divide and bloody war.
The Vietnam War
A better and more recent example may be the Vietnam War. The people pining for the days of compromise seem to have forgotten just how divisive and polarizing became the national conflict over this issue. On one side you had people who thought that stoping Communist expansion in Indochina was an absolute moral imperative. On the other side were people who considered the war to be utterly immoral and none of our business.
This internal conflict led to riots and violence (e.g., the 1968 Democratic Convention). Radical anti-war groups conducted bombings and other violent crimes. At Kent State National Guard troops fired on anti-war protesters with lethal results.
This rift in our national politics was not resolved by compromise. Rather an exhausted nation eventually abandoned South Vietnam and Cambodia. To the pro-war side this result was a moral catastrophe and to the ant-war side a hallow victory. The wounds of this unresolved conflict are unhealed almost 50 years later.
The issue of abortion has roiled American culture since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973. Some believe that stable “common ground” was found by formulations such as abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” or “except for cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.”
Yes, these positions have and still do serve as “in the middle” ground. However, that ground has proven to be unstable and unreliable given the current Progressive political actions to extend abortion rights right up to the moment of birth and even after birth (i.e., infanticide). States dominated by more conservative cultural beliefs have responded by passing laws imposing restrictive limitations on abortion.
This disappearance of “common ground” is less surprising if we acknowledge the fundamental chasm separating pro and anti abortion camps. On the pro side is the belief that a fetus belongs to the mother’s body and therefore is completely under her moral and physical control. The anti side believes that from the moment of conception the fetus is an independent human life that deserves respect and protection. Thus, although clever slogans may have papered over this chasm, eventually the lack of real common ground would assert itself, which is what we are now seeing.
Clarifying the Issue
My point isn’t that people with differing philosophies can’t through debate and compromise find “common ground.” Rather it is that there are issues in which “common ground” simply doesn’t exist or can’t be practically maintained. And yes, due to our current political polarization there are fewer opportunities to resolve issues on found “common ground.”
I contend that what we have lost strikes far deeper than the issue of finding “common ground” through debate and compromise, which will be the focus of my next post.