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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Purple Passions
distributed 11/9/12 - ©2012

At long last, the United States has wrapped up a bitterly fought, unimaginably expensive, and interminable set of campaigns. Billions of dollars have been spent, and it has been going on officially for a year -- unofficially, much longer than that.

And we end up sort of where we started: Obama re-elected, the House and Senate with the same opposing majorities, and a long list of urgent issues to be addressed. But coming out of two years of political gridlock in Washington, and months of nasty campaign rhetoric, the last few days have had lots of people talking about cooperation. Suddenly, we've shifted from a fixation on the win-lose dynamics of electoral votes in "red and blue states", to an awareness that we're a "purple" country.

I have mixed emotions about the new conciliatory tone. Partisan polarization does not serve us well, but my eco-justice worldview makes me passionate about many issues that are not easily resolved without conflict. Climate change and energy policies are at the top of my list.

How can we be properly passionate in a purple society? These are not polished thoughts or comprehensive suggestions. I welcome your comments and responses.

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First, a brief word about that red-blue dichotomy which dominates election reporting. The all-too-familiar electoral map was filled in Tuesday night with an unbroken swath of Republican red in the middle, and large clusters of Democratic blue toward the edges. Three days after the election, Florida still hangs off the bottom in an undecided gray.

That polarized map is useful only for presidential elections. Other than that, it conveys all sorts of distorted information, geographically and politically. I wrote in some length about those problems eight years ago ("Messed Up Maps"), and it is still true that an awareness of purple hues gives us a much more realistic picture of our nation.

A more subtle image of the 2012 returns digs down to the county level, and uses a spectrum between pure red and blue to show the shadings of purple in most parts of the country. Another graphic uses a slightly different color scale, and adjusts the map to show population size instead of land area. (That image is at the end of a whole article about about political maps.)

Those stunningly different maps show that we are a very diverse society, and guide us toward a more nuanced way of doing politics.

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Political commentator Richard Eskow wrote a provocative column this week. The opening paragraph read: "So, let's get this straight: A Republican President is re-elected in 2004 with 284 electoral votes, and the pundits tell us he has the 'political capital' to push an extreme right-wing mandate. A Democratic President gets re-elected in 2012 with 303 electoral votes, and they're telling us he needs to 'unite a divided country.'" Eskow goes on to list seven lessons from the election that he things should motivate progressives into strong political action.

I yearn for a more cooperative and functional political system, but I also yearn for decisive action on issues that I care about very deeply. I'm nervous about too strong an emphasis on unity and compromise. I'm not willing to settle for a middle-ground-mush that averages out our differences and does not bring real changes.

Some of my anxiety is grounded in the politics of the last several years. In 2010, President Obama dealt with a strident opposition party through an approach that some called "premature capitulation". Rather than hard-fought negotiation, he tried to gain good will by preemptively giving up major bargaining chips, for example on the territory that would be opened to oil drilling permits.

Conservative blogger "Mark America", wrote, "A real 'compromise' is the result of a process by which both parties to an exchange get some part of what they wanted in exchange for having yielded a little." Mark, writing on behalf of "grass-roots conservatives", thinks that compromise, as practiced in Washington, has involved "Republicans (particularly of the Establishment class) surrendering on principle to the left, gaining nothing, and getting nothing but a promise of 'getting along' that never materializes, but always winds up in another kick in the teeth." (Funny, that's not what I've seen in recent years!)

From the perspective of either the right or the left, surrendering on core points without getting real benefits in return isn't a good strategy. "Getting along" or "uniting a divided country" won't happen through watering down our differences, giving up on our deepest commitments, or just being nice. Political compromise is difficult and painful.

As Mr. Obama reminded us in his speech on election night, "Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy."

I'm convinced that we need to stand firm about the principles and the goals that matter deeply to us. We need to fight hard for what we believe is good and right, and negotiate for valuable trade-offs when compromise is necessary. We need to play fair and be civil, but we also need to bring our passions to the negotiating table. (An interesting religious side-note that I just discovered this morning: the word "compromise" does not appear in the Bible.)

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Here are a few approaches that might allow us to be both passionate and civil, willing to fight hard on important issues and still be respectful of our diverse society.

  • Back off on single-issue politics. No one cause can be allowed to trump all others. (From my perspective, this seems to be a much bigger problem in the political and religious right.) Whether it is "never raise taxes" or opposition to abortion, that fight can't overwhelm other, equally important questions. A passionate agenda on one issue can't cause roadblocks for other topics -- for example when a Senator puts a hold on judicial appointments until he gets his way on a funding issue.

  • Don't demonize your opposition. We might be rooted in very different values, we might be trying to reach conflicting goals, but -- with rare exceptions -- the folk who are actively involved in politics generally are decent people. Last June, the Chaplain of the United States Senate, Rear Admiral Barry Black, expressed that hope in a prayer.
    Open the eyes and hearts of our lawmakers so that they will know and do Your will. Help them to think of each other as fellow Americans seeking Your best for our Nation rather than enemy parties seeking to defeat each other. Replace distrust in each other with deep commitment to creative compromise.

  • Find areas of common ground, and act on them. There are lots of things where there is agreement across the partisan divide. Our nation will be healthier, and we'll be able to operate with trust and respect, when the non-controversial stuff can be taken care of.

The last few days have shown some signs that years of hyper-obstuctionist politics may be coming to an end. If we can move into an era where we work together for the good of the nation and the world, where partisan advantage gives way to a quest for the common good, then we may be able to take on the hard questions that are most important. That would be a setting where we can be bold and passionate about our commitments.

If we learn how to talk and negotiate, instead of just fighting, maybe we can even deal with tough issues like climate change. That's my hope.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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