Gladin: On politics, common ground hard to find

Dec. 15, 2012 @ 02:31 PM

Sometimes failure can be enlightening. In the week following the presidential election I planned to interview two Republican friends and ask them questions that I thought would prove a theory I held — that behind our outward differences lay significant agreements that could heal the hurts of an election year and move us towards some real solutions for what ails us.

Both of the people I intended to talk to are intelligent and compassionate human beings. I have known them for a long time. I knew we would agree on broad goals like “world peace,” or “an end to hunger,” but I truly assumed that we would find common ground amidst the details of hot-button election topics, both social and fiscal.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The failure of the first interview was so staggering that I couldn’t muster the gumption to interview my second Republican friend. It has taken me nearly a month to think through that conversation and write something about it.

I was determined to listen and not to argue — and I mostly succeeded. I wanted my questions to clarify and enlighten rather than confront. I didn’t want to fact-check or double-down on numbers. I just wanted to try to understand.

But I didn’t. And I couldn’t. It was almost as if my friend and I were speaking different languages or that we occupied parallel worlds in which things looked the same but were very different once you scratched the surface. We had different rule books. Our maps didn’t match.

We did agree on those biggies like peace and hunger, but we couldn’t agree much further on how to get from here to there. Instead of uncovering commonalities, I excavated gaping differences – entire chasms that I never knew were there.

Some of these differences were disturbing to me. This kind, intelligent man expressed opinions that I had, until now, associated with people who were rich, arrogant, and greedy; politicians who waged war against women and were uncaring about how their powerful lifestyles and self-serving legislations impacted other people, especially those most vulnerable. But the friend sitting on the porch beside me is none of these things.

He is, however, of high morals and strong character, and he expects as much of others. So I was surprised that the facts of his candidate’s tax secrecy didn’t particularly bother him. “We should all pay less in taxes,” is what he said.

In the teaching that I do at work we talk a lot about world views, or paradigms. One author calls them “framing stories.” They’re the stories that tell us who we are and why things are. They’re the stories that we wear like a pair of glasses, and they literally determine what we see out there in this big world. I was surprised to discover what different lenses my friend and I looked through to discover our own reality.

In these weeks since we talked I’ve realized a gift from our conversation -- that I can no longer see political candidates as cardboard people, so narrow and shallow as I’d perceived them in the past. I can no longer assume their motives, because what is behind my friend’s opinions is very different than that what I’d presumed drove those on the national scene. I will be a little more able to see those on the political stage as real human beings instead of caricatures, and that is just one small but important step towards being able to work together in the future.

My friend’s mailman is a Democrat with a capital “L,” like me. The two of them discuss politics and everything else, and they well know the dissimilar opinions that exist between them. On the Wednesday after the election my friend’s mail came with a handwritten note that said, “You’re still my buddy.” After pondering all of this I can say that, too. “You’re still my buddy.” But that never was a question; it was a presumption. It was the very basis for having this important conversation, and is the only reason to carry on.


Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may email her at or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.