Joe's Road Trip 2012

2012 Road Trip Day 17: Can We Get Along?

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Katy Steinmetz for TIME

Civil conversation group members Warren Feyt (L), Dick Kamischke and Deborah Ellis in Grand Haven, Mich., June 17, 2012.

Grand Haven, Michigan

On the day Rodney King was found dead in his swimming pool, I met with two diametrically opposed groups–members of the Tea Party in Kalamazoo and of a civil discussion association, composed predominantly of liberals, here in beautiful Grand Haven (and I must say, as a coastal guy, having dinner on the shore of Lake Michigan was just a lovely way to end the day). Both groups were composed predominantly of retirees. And both seemed avid for conversations outside their ideology. I don’t know how much of this was real–I suspect that the desire for conversation might be stronger than the ability to actually converse–but no matter: they want to talk and that’s good.

The Tea Party folks were well educated, most of them former executives in engineering and technical fields. They wanted to talk about the success they’d had in organizing–from local rallies attended by thousands, to finding successful candidates for local town and county boards, to Republican Party precinct captains. I wanted to move the conversation to policy and asked, “What are you most upset about?”

“I’d like to reframe the question,” said Bill Beck, a former Pfizer executive. “Being upset isn’t our motivating factor. Our goal is to reorient the country toward a restoration [of the values enshrined in our founding documents].” Beck talked about the “dissolution of individual responsibility.” He wanted people to “take control of their own lives…When you give people things, you’re in control of what they get.”

Beck and the others were pretty extreme on this front–opposed to almost everything the government had provided since the days of Woodrow Wilson, including Social Security and Medicare (Wilson seems a particular bogeyman among the Teas). But they were not irrational. They made strong philosophical arguments. They expressed their dismay at the “flamethrowers on both sides.” After an hour’s discussion, Beck returned to the question of things that upset him the most. “What upsets me most is our people–people on our side–who pervert our message with conspiracy theories.”

Bill Beck offers his business cards at a meeting of Tea Party supporters

Katy Steinmetz for TIME

I told the group that I’d been getting a steady diet of dismay from non-Tea Party members, who found it difficult to have a rational discussion with them. Beck pulled out his business card and said, “We’ll talk with anybody. Here’s my email address.” It was William0865@ (that’s a zero after William, not an o). “You see these people with bumper stickers that say Coexist. A lot of those people have no interest at all in coexisting…but here’s my offer: We want to have that conversation. I want to have that conversation because I want to know precisely what they think and because I’m confident that I can defend what I believe. They may give me facts to change my opinions, but I doubt it.”

I had the sense that the Tea Partyers were on their best behavior with me, but that their intellectual confidence was real. The Civil Discussion group in Grand Haven seemed more plaintive–but also on their best behavior until I provoked them a little. The group was supported by three organizations: the local library, the League of Women Voters and the Progressive Women’s Alliance. They held monthly meetings at which a single issue was discussed, which was laid out before the meeting in point-counterpoint position papers published by the local newspaper. Usually about 50 people showed up and they sat in tables of 5, having a conversation made civil by an adaptation of the old Native American “talking stick” tradition. “We have a talking brick,” said Dick Kamishke, a member of the group’s steering committee. “It’s rubber and you can only talk if you’re holding the brick.” After the table discussions, there was a plenary session involving the entire group.

The problem was that, try as they might, they were having trouble luring mainstream Republicans and Tea Party folks to their meetings. They had reached out, appeared on a local Tea Party radio talk show, invited the program’s host who came to the group’s next discussion. “He turned out to be a more confrontational type. He wanted a debate between the two sides.”

“That got a resounding no from the group,” said Cathy Feyt, a retired educator. “It’s the kind of thing you see on television all the time. We don’t want that.”

There was a great deal of wisdom in this group. They understood that a lot of the Tea Party anger had its roots in fear of the nation’s changing demographics and economic decline. They were the sort of people who lamented the lack of knowledge among the public, the need for average folks to be educated on the issues. But when I suggested that part of the problem was the public school system–and that part of the problem with the schools was the inflexibility of the teachers unions–the two teachers at the table jumped down my throat. “Why do people blame it all on us?” Cathy Feyt asked. I started to say that I didn’t blame it all on the unions, there were cultural factors, the breakup of traditional fam– But Feyt wouldn’t let me finish the thought. She fulminated about how everyone picked on the unions, how conservative governors in the midwest wanted to take away their pensions. “I think we could use the brick here,” Dick Kamishke gently suggested.

That contentious moment had sobered the group, though. There seemed a sudden appreciation of how difficult a conversation with people who truly had opposing views could be–which had been my slightly wicked intent in raising the union issue. “It’s going to be tough,” said Chris Baker of the League of Women Voters. “They think government is the problem and we think Wall Street is the problem.” I asked the group what they thought they might have in common with the Tea Party. One man said patriotism. But Baker, I think, came closer to the truth: “We’re frustrated that we don’t seem to have a voice in how things are going. I think the Tea Party feels the same way. They just blame a different entity–the government–than we do.”

Well, rest in peace Rodney King. But I would add just one thing: Earlier on this road trip, I suggested that we really needed to start a national dialogue lest our democracy fall apart. I was criticized by bloggers from both the left and right about this. They said I was looking for a moderate consensus that couldn’t be achieved. It would involve foolish, draconian compromises (from the left) and would end with what we had now, a status quo welfare state (from the right).

Both arguments are silly. We’re simply not going to get rid of programs like social security and medicare, and we have to be far more vigilant that the programs we do have–like the Department of Veterans Affairs, Head Start and various regulatory morasses–aren’t just wasteful bureaucratic swamps. I don’t think consensus on everything is possible or even desirable (it would also be very unAmerican in spirit, and decidedly boring). But consensus on nothing is just as impossible. We need to come to an agreement on the general size and functions of the federal government. Such a deal is eminently possible, if there is compromise on both sides–like the $4 trillion deficit reduction deal that Barack Obama and John Boehner privately reached last summer, which was scuttled by the Tea Party faction in the House (sorry, Kalamazoo Tea Party people, but that’s the truth).

If that sort of agreement isn’t possible, we’re in a lot of trouble. I don’t expect either side in this debate to conclusively prevail, democratically, over the other. I also don’t think that compromise is possible if the two sides aren’t talking, arguing, civilly and uncivilly, getting to know each other better, finding a common humanity, talking about their kids and if not singing Kumbaya, at least sitting around the campfire and eating s’mores. So get together Kalamazoo and Grand Haven. Have a conversation. And let me know what happens.