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"Purple" politics can lead to practical solutions

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Wednesday, March 16th, 2005 — What does a 24-year-old male who traded life in Palo Alto for lobster fishing in Maine have in common with a prominent 70s-something Palo Altan who claims to have displayed the only "Vote for Bush" sign in town during the last election?

Neither one, it seems, has much use for the color purple.

Recently I challenged the post-election red/blue polarization of this country for being a simplistic characterization of who we are and how we think.

Cultural and political differences have been around a long time without really hurting anyone. In fact, pluralism is grist for the mill of social change. Now instead of being the basis for compromise, differences are run up the flagpole as irreconcilable schisms.

Many, though not all, of these differences are regional. Result: the red-state/blue-state divide.

I suggested there are good reasons to move beyond this charged red and blue two-step, and consider ways we agree, even if our conclusions are different.

Why not think "purple" for a change?

"Impossible!" was the response I received from these two purple -- challenged skeptics, who do indeed make strange bedfellows.

The 24-year-old is our youngest son, Michael. The other, Leonard Ware, is a long-time friend (see "Letters" column). I have great respect for both.

However, they are worlds apart on the political scale, which is why their respective comments are intriguing.

Each in his own way wrote: "Forget about being light on your feet," and finding common ground as I had (naively, they say) proposed. Michael cannot imagine social change without struggle. Leo, on the other hand, says, "Call for a vote." Majority rules. Struggle versus majority rule. Is it possible that these two irreconcilable beliefs fuel the flames of political polarization?

Notwithstanding the obvious benefits of the democratic process, which must ultimately call for the vote, one needs to be wary of victory shouts that drown out the voice of dissention. "No one can know the whole truth," is the forgotten truth of partisan politics.

If 53 percent of the voters reelected Bush, then 47 percent had a different agenda. Irksome though it might be for the slim majority and for the President, the voice of this 47 percent contains at a huge kernel of truth.

Leo argues that, "...public issues past and present, or at least many of them, have only two sides, both irreconcilable and often hot to the touch." Two-sided, maybe, but not two-dimensional. Each side represents over-arching values and multi-layered interests.

Buried deep within these layers can be found overlapping values where compromise can begin.

Michael asks how "we go about looking for common ground" between, for example, legal and illegal abortion, a topic as "hot to the touch" as any. The abortion debate persists, even though this country did "call for a vote."

Neither the debate nor the vote is solely about respect for life. It is as much about a lifestyle. It is in part about sexuality and promiscuity.

Ask parents of teenagers how they feel about their children being sexually active. Red, blue, or green, most parents agree on the pitfalls that being sexually active poses for their children.

Common ground can be found right here in Palo Alto, with honest discussion about the dangers as well as the ways to protect young people from experiences that can be potentially very painful and damaging. The alternative, focusing on labels and battle lines, perpetuates the cultural gap.

Michael tells a story about a man who grew up in Ohio and visited Palo Alto a couple of months ago. While he was here, he went to Antonio's Nut House on California Avenue, where someone asked him where he was from. "The (local) guy picked a fight with him because he was from a red state."

Is it a crime to be from Ohio? Can we possibly know what this man believes just by knowing where he is from? And even if we could, should we ride him out of town on a rail?

In these times of ever-more-partisan politics, common ground needs to be more than a clichˇ. Call for the vote, but continue to listen to the hopes and fears on both sides. In the 18th century, Edmond Burke wrote: "All government - indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act -- is founded on compromise and barter."

The political arena does not have to feel like a war zone where competing positions close the door on compromise.

Winners do not take all in a society that claims to be, "of the people, by the people, and for the people" -- where "people" is understood to mean all of us, not just the ones with the loudest voice.

Yes, Leo and Michael, real-world practical-purple solutions wait in the middle of your opposite poles.