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To move beyond gridlock we must draw on values of both left and right

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
In arguments about the health-care system, we are stifled by paralysis on both sides.

“With malice toward none and charity toward all . . .”  

Jim Meffert

These famous words from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address are often quoted and sometimes revered as sacred text, but rarely acted upon. I was brought back to this quote by a combination of attention to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the confounding lack of vision by our leaders. 

At a time when this young nation was torn apart by a brutal war, President Lincoln was looking beyond the outcome. Even as the commander in chief of the military force fighting against an internal antagonist, he was reminded that the “enemy combatants” were American citizens. These people would eventually need to be brought back into the fold. Retribution would only further hostility and continue the battles in a different form. Ultimately, Lincoln knew that for the young nation to survive, northerners would need to welcome back their brothers and sisters, and southerners would need to feel like brothers and sisters, not the defeated enemy. 

We often talk of reconciliation — after the fact. We rarely hold it as a conscious motivation before and during an antagonistic event. Think about anything coming out of our nation’s capital these days. The motivation is to prove the correctness of a position through the demise of one’s political antagonist. 

This is the basic tenet behind the arguments over the health-care system. We are stifled by paralysis on both sides. One unwilling to move on, the other unwilling to fix things until the need for the fix is obvious to us all. Is the future of our democracy really dependent upon the success of a website? While this may be the most current example, others from just the last few years could fill volumes. 

An alternative reality

So let’s try a different context — an alternative reality where we look for value and don’t magnify differences. We begin with an acknowledgment that there is value in the perspectives of people on the right and people on the left. 

Conservatives remind us that a motivated individual is critical to the success of a society. Success of the individual is a good and a worthy goal. The motivation that comes from the goal is important to a successful and prosperous society. Their public-policy goal is to get out of the way.

Progressives remind us that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. They remind us that we live in a society, not a vacuum. They remind us that each of us, from the most successful to the most challenged, needs help. Their public-policy goal is to develop structures to support. 

Those of you reading this who are already arming yourself to criticize, take a deep breath. You/we have been trained to criticize. Your impulse to rip apart the perspective you disagree with is understandable. Every TV ad during an election, every minute of Fox News or MSNBC, every panel of political experts on CNN has trained you well.  Step away from the sensationalized impulse designed to keep you watching “public affairs shows” so someone can make money from ad revenue. They feed an impulse.  They do not solve the problem. Keep reading.

Think about this: Without the help of the greater society, the individual would not have the tools to succeed. Without the realistic ability to succeed, there is despair — which leads to anger, separation and crimes of survival. Goals and support are intertwined.  They are complementary. They are not mutually exclusive as our leaders would have us believe. 

A need for both perspectives

Without the focus on the individual goals expressed by the right, we become mired in the discussion of the institutions of support. Without the focus on supporting those in need expressed by the left, an organized society falls apart into despair, anger, hunger, crime, etc. There is a reason why every society celebrates success and is reminded of the responsibility to help the poor. We need both!

I have been inspired working with individuals struggling to move from homelessness to stability, struggling to find success for themselves and stability for their children.  They know how much more difficult that path would be without the support of a caring society — both public and private help. They need the boot, the straps, and the aspiration. They need the left AND the right.

Let me say this again. There is an important role for both the conservative and progressive perspective. They complement each other. They are not in competition.

The great challenge in public policy is to find a balance — that place where success is a regular event and support exists to make it happen. We all know this, but we have a hard time living it. I have seen the desire, and ability, of regular people to understand different perspectives, find value in each other, and seek balance. It is in each of us.  We need to find ways to bring it out. 

The first step us to understand this reality. The second step is to publicly acknowledge this balance. The third, and most important, step is to understand the need and value the importance of “the other side.”  This is not easy in a political system where winner-take-all is the goal. 

Different discussion, different outcome

Beginning a disagreement with an understanding that we are all bound by a greater good moves us to a different kind of discussion, and likely a different outcome. It is clear that our leaders are incapable of creating this dynamic. It is up to each of us to build a better model in each of our lives, and we can hope that this will be the catalyst our leaders need.

The full Lincoln quote is as follows:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Real leaders are those who think of the condition of the other side before they take action. They think of others at the time and place when it is most difficult. It is a leadership skill in short supply.

Jim Meffert is committed to empowering all in our community through developing public affairs and public input strategies, along with serving as president of Heartland Democracy, where Empowering U celebrates individual values, values the perspective of others, and gives people the tools to improve their lives and communities.


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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 12/03/2013 - 08:31 am.


    Somewhere along the line, the damaging notion took hold that compromise = capitulation. I’ve even seen it stated just that way in comments following articles.

    Compromise is not evil. Yes – it involves a little pain for all involved. The pain of not getting everything our way. A concept that is intrinsically a part of the notion of compromise.

    But then, “not getting everything your way” used to be a lesson that all children were taught. How do we get back to that?

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/03/2013 - 10:33 am.

    Ok, here’s a compromise

    Keep Obamacare totally intact. Don’t change anything.

    But make participation voluntary.

    That’s what I thought.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/03/2013 - 05:13 pm.


      The ACA itself IS a compromise. Progressives were not at thrilled about it’s passage, and the lack of a public option.

      We wanted single payer, with the for profit insurers we’re still saddled with and who will benefit greatly from millions of new customers.

  3. Submitted by Ross Willits on 12/03/2013 - 11:29 am.

    Shared goals not a given

    Thank you, Jim, for your reasoned and thoughtful essay.

    In a world where all sides were working toward a common goal, a common good, bargaining in good faith, and measuring success according to agreed-upon criteria, your analysis is right on. Would that we had such a political landscape.

    But we don’t.

    One side has decided that their party’s good trumps the common good, and has proclaimed that their overriding goal is the failure of the President. That can hardly be seen as taking action thinking about the other side.

    We’re living through a political era of Charlie Brown and Lucy. Political debate has devolved into “I’m against whatever you’re for, even if I was for it yesterday.”

    Mr. Tester’s suggestion, above, suggests that compromise would be to break the foundation of the Affordable Care Act by making it voluntary. As the Heritage Foundation suggested when it came up with the plan 20 years ago, full participation is necessary to achieve the common goods of the Act.

    The right’s full-throated denunciation of their own plan shows just how far down the road we’ve gone toward tribal politics trumping the public good.

    Mr. Meffert’s suggestion that politicians and the public begin by looking for the complement, rather than the competition, is right on. I look forward to the day that happens.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/03/2013 - 01:12 pm.

      Just because a staffer

      at a right-wing think tank thought it was a good idea 20 years ago, doesn’t make it a “right-wing plan.”

      Note how it and all other plans based on *mandatory collectivism* have always been opposed by the right because they’re the very antithesis of free choice, which is the foundation of free market capitalism, which is the basis of a free society. Mitt Romney had to defend his plan, not to democrats, but to fellow republicans who saw his adoption of a mandatory plan as heresy.

      If the Left’s objective was truly to provide free or inexpensive health insurance for the poor, they could have done that by simply expanding the definition of who’s qualified for Medicaid and leaving the rest of us alone. But it wasn’t. It was an attempt to control people’s lives by controlling their health care.

      They can prove that’s not the case by making Obamacare voluntary. If the system is so great, people will flock to it in droves.

  4. Submitted by Carol Logie on 12/03/2013 - 02:16 pm.

    I guess I don’t understand

    exactly how the captioned photo (“In arguments about the health-care system, we are stifled by paralysis on both sides.”) ties in with the author’s argument. Currently, Democrats are trying to expand affordable healthcare for Americans, and Republican are trying to torpedo it entirely and replace it with nothing. That’s not paralysis, that’s dichotomy.

    Furthermore, where is this aspirational Left and motivational Right? I’d love to see it, personally. But judging from the Democrats backpedalling on the ACA as fast as they can, I think aspiration in that party is in pretty short supply. As for the Right, well, in order to work for the common good, you have to believe in the common good. And they clearly don’t.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/03/2013 - 05:10 pm.

    The Light Bulb

    Has to want to change.

    One side sees every issue as a zero-sum game, and that working with the other side is treason.

    Since that is not addressed, this piece comes off a very naive.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/03/2013 - 05:37 pm.

    Mr. Meffert is Attempting to Begin

    Where Barack Obama began at the start of his presidency, but President Obama has learned a lesson that Mr. Meffert has not.

    The approach he suggests assumes that those you are dealing with on the other side are psychologically healthy and able to consider and evaluate new information which challenges or contradicts what they already believe.

    Far too many of today’s “conservatives” (and a very few on the extreme far end of the “liberal” perspective, too), are simply unable to do so because their dysfunctions make it impossible for them to become aware of information that might challenge their “true beliefs.”

    Rather than working to identify and repair the problems of our nation in the kind of periodic tuning that even the finest pipe organ or grand piano needs,…

    they insist that these instruments must be allowed to crumble into a state of disrepair that will eventually render them unusable,…

    all in the name of preserving the work of those who originally purchased built them,…

    all the while refusing to hear the missing notes, the rattles and clunks, the wheezing, hissing and honking, or to take notice of the large numbers of notes which are increasingly out of tune.

    It’s rather difficult to conduct reasonable negotiations with others when those others are so determined to win at all costs and so blind to any perspectives but their own, and so willfully ignorant of the damage they are doing to themselves (and the rest of us, too) that their attitude amounts to a collective death wish,…

    especially when the only “compromise” they’re willing to consider is “everyone else must do things exactly OUR way.”

  7. Submitted by jason myron on 12/03/2013 - 06:08 pm.

    Love the irony

    of someone on the side of vaginal ultrasounds and banning same-sex marriage, attempting to equate expansion of health care with controlling people lives.

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