I used to spend hours on social media arguing with lunatics — about politics, economics, culture, you name it. The same irritatingly cocky guy kept popping up on my feed.
We’d fight about everything, and not politely. After one heated exchange, I told the jerk if he ever showed his face within a mile of my fist, I’d … take him lunch.
He came. I paid. Our knives stayed on the table. Turns out we shared quite a few concerns: about our kids, our careers, our country.
We were both worried that the partisanship we wallowed in so lustily online is tearing America apart in the real world.
I was thinking about my friend this week when I heard that Congress is close to passing a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Democrats and Republicans haven’t come together on something this big in years. Talks could still collapse, but to get this far is remarkable.
One of the things my friend suggested is that Americans may see eye-to-eye on more issues than commonly thought. I went home and did some digging. He’s right.
Polls show that majorities of us want greater civility and more compromise in Congress. Also, more infrastructure spending, higher taxes on corporations and the rich, better access to health care, a stronger response to climate change, and a more humane approach to immigration. We’re split on the deficit and the death penalty, but we mostly want abortion to remain legal and voting to be easier.
So why do we seem irreparably divided these days? Why do some of those same polls show that Democrats and Republicans blame each other for this mess?
Didn’t used to be like that. Our Republic was, essentially, born in compromise: the Great Compromise of 1787. That one ended the squabble between populous states and small ones over the shape of the new Congress — by creating a House with proportional representation and a Senate with two members per state.
Over the years, Congress was able to set aside partisanship to confront wars, depressions and other challenges. Thus, the Civil Rights Act (1964), NASA (1969), the Endangered Species Act (1973), Social Security reform (1983) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). All passed with crucial support from the minority party.
Things began to fall apart in the 1970s and ’80s, after conservative Democratic voters — uneasy over their party’s support for civil rights — defected to the GOP. That migration transformed both parties from collections of disparate factions into a pair of more ideologically coherent clubs.
Meanwhile, politicians discovered the utility of keeping their supporters angry at the other side. Strong words are rewarded with media attention — conflict makes for more compelling TV than consensus — and officeholders need attention to get reelected. All that makes America seem more divided than it is. Also makes compromise look like surrender.
Republicans these days are further burdened by a de facto leader who demands absolute loyalty to his aims and views. Democrats have a president whose early promises of bipartisanship have faltered on the rocks of partisan reality.
As a result, official Washington has become so divided that Dems and Republicans rarely socialize together anymore. The new House Select Committee on congressional modernization has found it necessary to propose “civility training” for members, as well as more opportunities to meet the other side for — what else? — lunch.
Which is why the bipartisan infrastructure bill could be a breakthrough. It was “hammered out” (I love that cliche) in face-to-face meetings between people who have been insulting each other for years. Maybe they’re tired of disagreement — and realize voters are tired of it too.
My friend and I were loaded for bear when we first sat down, three years ago, in a Manhattan eatery. I learned that he’s a tech consultant and former congressional aide to a long-passed conservative Democrat. He learned that I grew up among conservatives. We also discovered that our political differences, though crisp and assertive as the sauvignon blanc we shared, were not worth spoiling a good meal. We have dined several times since then, with increasing jollity and deepening conversations about our country’s tragic flaws and vast promise.
If we can go from blind rancor to the chef’s special, then perhaps our elected officials can figure out how to end their merciless, destructive warfare. Meanwhile, we ordinary folks can stop treating so many of our fellow citizens as enemies.
Instead, let’s have lunch.