Like you, I have watched as the Tea Party has taken shape and now as the Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading – and my desire is to bring them both together around a single table for a real conversation. My experience tells me that they probably share some important things in common, and the nation would do well if those things could be uncovered and explored. When I “Google” the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street what appears is the well-worn and typical frame of how to view these two groups. The stories go in for the kill: how the two groups are doing battle against one another, which one has raised more money, and how they each seek to out muscle the other.
In today’s Washington Post, a new survey only underscores and deepens this divide and sense of gridlock. Here is what the paper said about the poll results: “Although newly minted movements, Occupy Wall Street and the tea party have been thoroughly absorbed by the preexisting, all-too-familiar partisan divide.” In other words, the two groups are just reflections of what we already tend to believe: everything can be explained by the Red/Blue Divide. But rather than try to explain away the groups, I want to bring them together.
Now, before going on, I could understand if you said at this point, “What, Rich, are you crazy? There’s no way anything positive could come of this.” What’s more, I can hear people saying, “I just don’t trust the other side. They’re nuts!” But, please, read on, and you’ll see why I think we must take this step.
My goal is to bring people from both groups together for an extended, in-depth conversation. In this conversation, I would not focus on questions about their party affiliation, or who they plan to support in the 2012 presidential race, or ask them to raise their hands in quickie surveys to gauge which pre-existing policy positions they support on key issues. Each of these questions would be off limits, as would others like them.
The point is to create a space in which we would sweep off the table all the icons and triggers and stereotypes that are often used to quickly categorize people, their beliefs, and their positions. My intention here is never dismiss or temper people’s passions – but to hold at arms’ length the all-too-familiar, knee-jerk shortcuts we use to describe people and ideas that we may revile or detest or wish to push away or, simply, fear.
I would start with a simple question about their aspirations for their community. I would then ask them what their chief concerns are. I would want to know how they experience their lives and what they hope to create in them – and for the country.
From there, the conversation would go to what kinds of actions can be taken – by citizens, political leaders, and others – to reflect these aspirations and start to address their concerns. These lines of inquiry enable people to see and hear one another – something that is in short supply these days. For when opposing groups are forced into political clusters and language that demonizes the other, the possibility to find a different path is squeezed out. It is shut down.
I hold faith in the possibility of bringing these two groups together because, over the past six months, my colleagues and I have been traveling across the country asking people from all walks of life, and across all political affiliations, these types of questions. What we’re discovering is that amid all the differences, noise and finger pointing, people actually do share enough aspirations and common concerns that there is a basis for moving forward; and they are able to articulate basic steps that could be taken to kick-start a different trajectory for the county. Taking such steps would begin a process of building greater trust, and helping to restore people’s faith in themselves and one another that it is still possible to get things done together.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that there aren’t deep splits between these groups on some fundamental concerns. But, the truth is, there are also emerging differences within each of these movements. Each movement is not monolithic, nor do people within them walk in lock-step. And even if they were monolithic and in lock-step, the change each wants only can come about through action taken with others beyond their groups. This is the fundamental challenge within a democracy.
The urgent step I want to take is to bring folks from both movements to the table to see and explore what areas of commonality do exist, and what those openings might suggest for how to get the country moving forward.
Now’s the time.