Talking to political adversaries: Tips on reaching across the aisle

Reaching Across or Reaching Around?

With corrupted campaign finance and limited oversight and regulation over the intersections among government agencies (e.g., The White House and The Pentagon) and between government and private industry, big finance and media, one could easily argue that genuine ideological debate in America has taken a backseat to public-to-private reach-arounds masquerading as Republican-Democratic reaches across the aisle.

If the Republican and Democratic parties were mixed drinks, they would be glasses of corporatism with small shots of ideology.

Of course, whether the bartender was George Bush, Barack Obama, John Boehner, or Harry Reid, the patron would be led to believe that they had just bought a straight triple of their ideology of choice; likewise, they would be told that the reason that the other drink tastes so bad is because it is a straight triple of that other, yucky ideology. And almost none of the Senators, Congressmen and women and members of the mainstream media who would be the alcohol regulators at the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) in this metaphor would call any of these bartenders out on this, as they’ve been at the bar drinking for free since lunch time. They are typically too drunk and too hooked on the free drinks to do anything but uphold the lie. This often leads to the trusting patrons of The Establishment being unnecessarily divided. While Republican drinkers and Democratic drinkers do have different palates, they are often mislead into believing that the corporatist solvent in the other Party’s drink is the ideological shot, or solute.

Often times, it would appear that members of each drinking group don’t mind the qualities of the other group’s shot as much as they think; they’re just confusing it with the flat, tainted corporate coke that it has been deeply diluted in.

How do we get past this? Just drink shots.

What is progressive about President Obama and the Democrats giving into the Republicans and the pharmaceuticals and bio-tech industries by further extending patent lengths (thereby keeping medical costs high by snuffing out competition) and forfeiting a place at the table for the government to negotiate medical product prices on behalf of the citizens? Or giving up the public health insurance option without a fight, capitulating to the Republicans, “Conservative Democrats” (read: Corporatist Democrats), and most importantly, the healthcare insurance lobby? Absolutely nothing. Of course, you wouldn’t know that if you watched Fox News, which routinely paints everything Obama does – no matter how much it is exactly what the Republicans and the coveted lobbies wanted – as far-left lunacy.

And what is conservative about the Republicans and the “Conservative Democrats” continuing to support giving the richest oil companies – and often the richest companies – in the world subsidies to incentivize them to drill for oil when oil is selling at $100 a barrel? That’s like paying a raging alcoholic to drink, as if they wouldn’t without this added incentive. Where’s the free market conservatism in Republicans and “Conservative Democrats” helping the medical industry titans to keep competition and free market negotiations out of the game?

There is no progressivism or conservatism in any of these scenarios. There’s only Establishmentism, corporatism, elitism, and public-to-private reach-arounds which gratify those already in power while leaving a big mess for the everyone else to deal with.

How do we get past this when talking to people on the other side of the political divide?


Progressives and Conservatives often agree far more than they think they do. Polls over recent years show that majorities – in some cases staggering majorities of the general American population – have been in support of a public health insurance option and ramping up government efforts to control healthcare prices and costs, doing away with Bush Era tax cuts on the rich, considering revenue enhancement (primarily higher tax rates at the highest marginal tax brackets) along with spending cuts in addressing the national debt, retracting war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, decreasing the role of lobbyists in Washington, legalizing gay marriage, repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from cuts, legalizing marijuana, decreasing defense spending, and protecting legal, accessible abortion.

Hearing the politicians and pundits talk, one would never expect to see so many hot button issues – that’s just about all of them – with at least 50% of Americans’ support. The number of Americans supporting the above policies often towers over those against, as the remaining Americans are comprised not just of those that don’t support the policy, but also of those who are unsure.

What is more, politicians and pundits often conflate the coke with the whiskey. That is, when the Democrat does something that is not progressive, but is clearly corporatist, it is often described as progressive. If you hate coke and someone tells you that the coke is whiskey, you may think that you hate whiskey.

Stick to the policies; try to forget about the politics, the partisanship and the cults of personality. Find out what the policies are and evaluate them according to your own values and visions for America. Likewise, recognize the corporatist improprieties of the party most closely aligned to your ideology, and the honest, well-intended (even if disagreeable) acts of members of the other party.


If you’re a progressive, understand conservative philosophies (e.g., libertarianism). If you’re a libertarian, understand progressive ideology. As a person whom is largely progressive but has respect and sympathy for libertarianism, I believe that each school of thought has its own morally and intellectually defensible internal logic to it. I also recognize that each can look irresponsible or even evil when looked at from the perspective of the other. If you want to have a fruitful discussion with someone on the other side of the spectrum, one of the worst things that you can do is to view their opinions exclusively from the perspective of your own worldview.

Just as I’ve seen many conservatives inaccurately depicting progressive thinking and the policies of actual and so-called progressives, or myopically viewing progressivism in terms of libertarianism, I have been disappointed to see some progressives – e.g., Michael Moore (whom I believe has embarrassed progressivism on a number of occasions) and even my genuinely beloved Young Turks – fail to give due diligence to libertarian points of view. This is not, however, to draw a false equivalency. With few exceptions – e.g., Shep Smith – the people of Fox News along with big conservative radio (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) have shown themselves again and again to be far more over-the-top and frequent offenders. That said, an offense on either side of the aisle is an offense


When debating, it is very easy to quickly move past points of agreement and focus the majority of energies on points of disagreement. While it is true that debates would hardly be debates if people spent most of their time talking about what they already agreed upon, these points of agreement can be critical to promoting interpersonal and intergroup rapport and to defeating conceptions of the other group as bad, stupid or evil. While debates, by definition, tend to de-emphasize positions of agreement, discussions don’t. Discussions address agreements and disagreements. Maybe we need a bit more discussion and a bit less debate.


People like to be validated. Validation is key to cooperation. Validation is easiest when you find a position of complete agreement, but it is also possible elsewhere. As a person who leans progressive, I can often fully respect the reasoning behind a libertarian position while, at the end of the day, preferring a more progressive alternative. When this sort of thing happens, try indicating that while you have a different position, you can understand and see the validity of the position of the other person. Sometimes not only will you disagree with a position, but you will not have much respect for the reasoning leading up to it. In this case, you may want to try to find ways in which, from the perspective of the other person, the position could be deemed to be valid. Find the grains of sensibility and recognize them. You don’t have to say that you think the position is valid, or that it is on equal footing with your position if you do not think that it is, but you may want to try to give the bit of validation that comes from you making the effort to empathize with their perspective.

For example, I’m an atheist who thinks that the theism is intellectually bankrupt. If I’m talking with a theist, I may want to say that given your upbringing and your personal experiences which you have found to resonate with your notion of God, I can have some degree of empathy to where you are coming from, even though I disagree with it strongly for reasons X, Y and Z. This is not always going to be easy to do, but you may have a more fruitful discussion and help foster more discussion later by going this route. I’ve learned from personal experience – on both sides – that people typically don’t like to engage in intellectual inquiry with people who never validate them.

Final Thoughts

There will always be major, often unresolvable points of contention in a democratic society. There will always be people who disagree on abortion, progressive versus libertarian economic policy, and so on. These are the disputes of a good, honest political landscape. They are contentious enough, though. Americans – and people of the world – don’t need to further burden themselves. To the degree that average Americans can unburden themselves, they have a chance at restoring some honesty to the national conversation.

One thought on “Talking to political adversaries: Tips on reaching across the aisle

  1. Pingback: Posts from the current blog: Death By Trolley « The Frame Problem

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