Is a “Grand Bargain” in American Politics Still Possible?

If the center cannot hold, the 2020 election could very well be our last

Everyone knows that kind of person — the one who refuses to discuss or even acknowledge an issue that would force them to rethink their core identity.

My wife tells a story about a former colleague dying of cancer who simply refused to talk about what was happening to his body. Even when he was in palliative care at the end of his life, he ignored any discussion of his own mortality and chose instead to talk about sports and work.

As Americans, we see this sort of denial, this willful ignorance, every day in the political arena.

The gun control debate is a great example: liberals have taken the moral high ground, while conservatives try to shut down any national discussion of common-sense gun laws by obsessing over the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and claiming that weapons like assault rifles are necessary to guard against the “tyranny” of government.

The intellectual hypocrisy of the right was recently exposed during the invasion of Portland by camouflaged federal agents under the direction of President Trump.

The agents represented the most tangible, most direct threat to individual freedom and states’ rights in a generation, and yet the right wing was publicly silent about this intrusion, with the National Rifle Association (NRA) even tweeting its 2020 endorsement of the President at the same time federal stormtroopers patrolled American cities tear-gassing protestors.

One is left with the impression that President Trump can do any tyrannical, fascist thing he wants to these “Second Amendment people” — crush them into poverty, deny them access to affordable health care, fill the news channels with propaganda — just as long as he doesn’t talk about legislation to better-regulate firearms.

And yet other issues supercharge the paranoia and irrationality of the left so that they behave much like the right wing does on gun control — I’m thinking specifically of the left’s grotesque devotion to principles of diversity, inclusion, and tolerance to the exclusion of all other substantive decision-making criteria.

Liberals go out of their way to blindly defend the rights of undocumented immigrants, for example, despite significant evidence that international criminal gangs like MS-13 are using our porous southern border to infiltrate American towns and cities, creating an underground economy and causing many Americans (not to mention properly documented legal immigrants) to live in fear.

Indeed, the left’s focus on protecting diversity no matter the cost is clearly visible in the “sanctuary” policies of many left-leaning counties and cities across the United States, where undocumented immigrants who are arrested by local police for crimes like rape and assault — sometimes multiple times — are then released back into the community even though the government has asked that these individuals be transferred to federal custody.

Some may remember the story of an 19-year-old undocumented immigrant from El Salvador named Mario Granados-Alvarado living in the “sanctuary” of Montgomery County, Maryland. On April 29, 2017, Alvarado broke into a police officer’s unmarked police car and stole a shotgun, AR-15 rifle, and ammunition; two days later he drove to his high school with the assault rifle in the trunk of his car. Fortunately, he was arrested by local police officers before he could do anything with the gun, but when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a “detainer” asking the County not to release him until ICE agents could be there to pick him up, the County ignored the detainer in accordance with its sanctuary policies and let the young man walk out of jail as soon as he posted bail. This forced ICE to deploy resources in order to locate and re-arrest Alvardo before anything bad happened.

Every month brings news of more “catch and release” cases like this one across the country. Although each case certainly contains some nuance — was Alvardo going to shoot up his school, or was he intending to sell the gun to someone else? Was he being controlled by powerful gang members?— the fact still remains that he had no right to be in the United States in the first place, and that ignoring the ICE detainer put Montgomery County in direct defiance of federal law.

One may well imagine a caricature of your average diversity-focused social justice warrior on the left as someone who is totally fine with criminal gangs setting up shop in their community — committing fraud and identity theft, terrorizing legal and other undocumented immigrants with gang violence, using up valuable state and local resources — as long as Spanish is spoken and burritos are served.

Empathy Wanted

These two debates, gun control and illegal immigration, are primarily about safety and security.

They do not run precisely parallel to each other, but in broad strokes they have attracted powerful advocates who smother both sides of the political spectrum with a sort of Manichean black-and-white thinking that allows little room for compromise.

Please understand, I’m not suggesting that we deport all undocumented immigrants in the way the left fears, nor am I recommending the government seize all the guns in America the way the NRA constantly warns its members about.

In fact, the fear of such sweeping “final solution”-style programs are chimeras created by the powerful forces at each end of the political spectrum. These dystopian visions are mental short-cuts intended to shut down any discussion, understanding, or empathy that might be possible surrounding these challenging issues.

Groups on both the left and the right will cite statistics about gun violence to argue for and against gun control.

Groups on both the left and the right will truck out research from their own think-tanks to show that sanctuary policies have either a neutral or negative impact on the safety of a city or county.

But no amount of data, no amount of information, will make the case one way or the other because both sides are so entrenched emotionally that they refuse to validate the concerns these statistics are intended to support.

Like a man who refuses to accept his impending death because his core identity is so bound up in his own sense of being alive, a refusal to acknowledge the severity of these issues has become core to the identity of each side of the political spectrum and, by default, the Democrat and Republican leadership.

What’s needed is more understanding, more compassion, and more recognition of the lived reality of American voters.

How many on the left have never realized that the same fear, the same outrage, that they feel after every mass shooting is also felt by right-leaning Americans in reaction to news about crime committed by undocumented immigrants?

Similarly, how many on the right acknowledge that the lack of empathy they seem to demonstrate after every mass shooting exactly mirrors the thumb-in-the-eye advocacy that liberal groups and politicians show for unchecked illegal immigration?

Just as liberals find the image of mass shootings incompatible with their future vision of America and would like to do something about it, so do conservatives find illegal immigration and the blatant violation of federal authority represented by sanctuary policies equally outrageous and offensive.

To work out a solution, each side has to start thinking about the other side as partially right instead of completely wrong and hammer out a trade-off, a deal that validates each side’s concerns while simultaneously allaying their fear that compromise is the beginning of a slippery slope leading to the nightmare visions they have always been warned against.

The details of the “grand bargain” I’m describing must be left to others to work out. This is just the starting point.

But why do this at all?

Why now?

Because our democracy is on life support.

And if we want to preserve our democracy, we need to do everything we can to walk back the rhetoric and find some common ground between left and right before the social unrest we saw earlier in the summer turns out to be a dress rehearsal for worse things to come.

The Stakes Are High

It’s somewhat popular to speculate about a “Second American Civil War” these days.

A recent Rasmussen survey found that 34 percent of U.S. voters thought such a war was likely within the next five years.

And if the skyrocketing gun and ammunition sales are any indicator, some degree of civil unrest and conflict certainly seems like something many Americans are worried about.

But before we even start pointing our fingers to the left or the right and saying “you started it,” the first thing we need to do is acknowledge that America has enemies, and that our enemies — the same individuals and groups who generally can also be considered enemies of democracy — are very much rooting for blood to run and fires to burn in the streets of American cities.

The Chinese government wants to see democracy fail. So does dictator-for-life Vladimir Putin of Russia and his oligarchs. So do the regimes in North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

And there’s more:

Those who wish ill for America and for democracy are actually helping create our country’s right-left divide through active measures of espionage and propaganda.

Said another way, other countries and groups aren’t just cheering from the sidelines as the American Goliath teeters — they are poking, pushing, and doing whatever they can to help us take the tumble.

We‘ve already seen from the 2016 election that the Russians are actively trying to manipulate public sentiment.

According to this Vox article, a February 2018 Justice Department indictment showed that the Russians supported not only Donald Trump in the 2016 election, they also supported Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders as well as pretending to represent special interest groups related to civil rights:

Russian operatives used accounts they controlled — including an account called “Woke Blacks” and “Blacktivist” — to urge Americans to vote for third-party candidates or not to vote at all. “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein,” one such message read.

Get it?

The Russians don’t care what side they support as long as it creates greater division and unrest among Americans, pushing them further from the center and leading each side to dehumanize and denigrate the other.

This should not come as a surprise to anybody who remembers their Cold War history. It’s a page straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook — a healthy middle is what allows a democracy to function, so the key to destroying a democracy is to radicalize both sides against the middle.

I’m not saying the Russians think they can actually take over America or that all extreme ideology is being imported from abroad.

Rather, I’m saying that if we want to move toward a better, safer society, we have to remember that compromise and respectful disagreement is the key to a functional democracy and external forces are using extremist views and hateful dialogue to hurry us toward a systemic breakdown.

It’s impossible to say how much of the misinformation we see in social media news feeds is home-grown and how much is based on outside interference.

More than likely there’s a feedback loop occurring, where outside actors catch wind of some growing movement or talking point among Americans and then do what they can to boost the message and take it to the next level, soaking the information in falsehood and extremist rhetoric like a rag being soaked in gasoline until all that’s needed to light the whole thing on fire is a match in the form of a catalyzing incident.

Breaking the Stalemate

I hope I’ve made a convincing case that the need for centrism — some gestures, anyway, on specific issues — has never been higher.

And I hope that trying to address these two issues, gun control and sanctuary cities, might be the right place to start.

In addition to the battle against external actors hoping to tear America apart, the quest for compromise faces its own internal obstacles.

For one thing, the powerful home-grown forces that have flattened each debate into black-and-white alternatives need to be called out and challenged — on the right, as everyone well knows, is the NRA and the gun manufacturers who are holding Republicans hostage; on the left it’s a coalition of liberal advocates known as the “Dreamers” who are promising to shower the Democrats with hundreds of thousands of future votes once illegal immigrants are given a pathway to citizenship.

Again, I’m not saying that all gun activity is bad activity in the United States or that all “Dreamers” should be queued up for deportation.

I’m saying that we need to reduce the volume of the powerful, extremist voices that make each party completely ignore the legitimate criticisms of the other and work toward narrow carve-outs that would, for the benefit of the left (and the entire nation), implement some common-sense gun laws and, for the benefit of the right (and the entire nation), provide more tools to the federal government to target and deport violent undocumented immigrants.

Measurable progress in both of these areas would bring greater safety and security to the United States, improve the working relationship between the Republicans and Democrats, and create few negative trade-offs other than several very loud well-paid advocates having to throw in their towels.

In terms of rhetoric, it would really help if the left would stop casting a wide linguistic net over terms like “nationalism” and “racism.”

It’s not racist to seek better control over national boundaries and reduce crime. And although “nationalism” has become a dirty word on the left, this is only because it has been rejected based on one narrow and negative meaning — it’s not wrong to work toward a better, more unified sense of our nation and to have pride in the ideals that have propelled the American experiment forward.

For its part, the right has to stop fantasizing that Democrats want to completely take away their “right to bear arms” and that their piles of guns and stacks of ammunition are the only things standing between America and fascism.

The truth is that President Trump has already brought our country to the doorstep of fascism, and supporting the President despite his obvious fascist leanings and his praise of dictators around the world is both hypocritical and risky. The right had essentially gambled that the Republican Party will be able to stay in power in 2020 and beyond; otherwise, the fascist tools that Trump has sharpened over the past four years can and will be turned on them if Democrats clinch the White House.

Clearly a compromise is needed to help break this cycle of extremist rhetoric and retribution before it’s too late.

If this deal won’t work, I sincerely hope something else will… otherwise the 2020 presidential election could very well be our last.

I’m more than just a writer. Don’t bother looking for me on Twitter. This is my home at the moment.

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