published Friday, June 21st, 2013

Cook: Finding common ground

"Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer."


Two grown men, and we felt almost giddy, like Bilbo finding the ring or a blind hog stumbling across an acorn.

We had sat down to talk about politics. Abortion. Welfare. Gun control. The guy across from me leaned a little to the right, I to the left, which meant the stage was set for all the predictables that mark modern political discourse.

Shouting. Cursing. Arms-crossed posturing.

It happens every day across America.

Except this time.

Instead, we discovered something remarkable.

"We had a civil conversation," said Matt McLelland.

Cross my heart and hope to die, I swear it happened. One of us -- probably McLelland -- took the high road, and instead of arguing, began to do the extraordinary.

He listened.

In turn, I dropped my defenses and spoke more honestly and openly.

Then, I listened to him.

No one was trying to convince or defeat the other. Instead, we just wanted to learn, really and truly, what the other thought and why.

In doing so, we grew as thinkers, expanded our own political minds and discovered this surprising geography.

"Common ground," he said.

Washington politics and the national media market foster division and dysfunction while promoting

a culture of discourse that seeks neither understanding nor wisdom but unending conflict ... all followed by a commercial break.

Like fish that keep taking the bait, we seem to think that if we argue harder and louder, somehow the other side will wise up and walk away.

"The guy on the right, the woman on the left, they're duking it out. This doesn't do anything but accomplish the bolstering of a position somebody already had," said McLelland, 43, who works for Kenco Management Services.

Until this changes, it is hard to imagine any real work getting done in this country. Worse, it reflects a fiction: that blue-state folks are radically different from red-state people, when in reality we have far more in common than not.

"Think about Rwanda, where people on both sides of a genocide were able to reconcile with one another," McLelland said.

And Washington can't even pass a budget?

McLelland and I have begun to tinker with this concept, meeting regularly to search for common political ground while paying attention to the map that gets us there.

He assumed I was an anti-gun nut, but was surprised to learn I've owned and shot plenty. (Guns, not nuts).

I assumed he was a National Rifle Association devotee, but was glad to hear he supported stronger background checks and thinks the NRA is hyperbolic.

Climate change? We agreed on a long list: conservation, education, practical solutions, sustainable farming.

"Don't kill baby seals," he said. "And if you do, use sustainable bullets."

(Joking. He was only joking.)

Our common-ground experiment has created a safe space where we each can rethink our opinions, sometimes realizing that the other side -- the one we had dismissed and stereotyped away -- has some thoughtful and truthful points ... and may even be right at times.

That never happens when someone is yelling at you.

Instead of political enemies, we become allies, wanting a more perfect America. The best thing about this common ground?

There's room for plenty more.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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jesse said...


Common ground is the rarest element on the planet,followed closely by rational discourse on trying to find "common ground"!

Human nature being what it is you have a better chance of winning the lottery!

June 21, 2013 at 1:21 p.m.
rt said...

We'uns is just a bunch of inbred hillbillies, and we's about to lose our Volkswagen plant to Mexico..but hey, we'uns stills has Fox News, Ted Cruz, and the Koch brothers....Don't pay no neverminds to the fact the rest of the world sees us as ignorant hillbillies....

June 22, 2013 at 10:39 a.m.
Rickaroo said...

It is true, I think, that there is more that unites us than divides us, and common ground is not really that difficult to attain when the people involved in the discourse are rational and possess a certain degree of common sense. But here's the rub: there are countless bozos in the mix, saying all manner of cockamamie, stupid things, and they don't deserve to be dignified with calm, rational debate, as if what they are saying makes sense on any level whatsoever.

When there are people who flat-out deny science and actually believe that the earth is only 6000 – 8000 years old, that humans lived alongside of dinosaurs, and that creationism should be taught in our schools; or when loony teabagging Republicans keep referring to abortion, even in the first trimester of pregnancy, as "murder" and they almost daily come up with insane anti-abortion bills that are so restrictive that they are inching closer and closer to making abortion completely prohibitive for women under any and all circumstances; or when the global warming deniers refuse to believe what the climate scientists are almost unanimously telling us and they make the idiotic claim that trees are responsible for global warming and they cannot see how the spewing of trillions upon trillions of tons of carbon-based pollutants into the atmosphere for the past 100+ years could possibly have at least some deleterious effect on the planet and have its part to play in the equation; or when there are people making the claim that our government itself is inherently evil and the free market is magically and inherently good and they give corporations carte blanche to do whatever the hell they want; or when they turn a blind eye to the blatant evil of Bush's lies and deceit that led us into unjustified war but call for impeaching Obama for every little slip of the tongue or misstep….well, tell me what manner of “common ground” is desirable if we have to give even a moment of serious debate to such obvious idiocy?

Unfortunately the Republican Party, in its attempts to placate its degenerate base of teabaggers and Bible thumpers, is full of such lunacy. The members of the Democratic Party are certainly not without their faults, but few, if any, of them have devolved to the point of making such cringe-worthy statements and proposing such insane legislation that issue forth from the Grand Old Tea Party on practically a daily basis.

June 22, 2013 at 1 p.m.
atomteori said...

I'm a Yellow-Dog-Democrat, as liberal as the day is long, and all my hunting buddies are Tea Party Republicans. We've been friends for over 20 years, love to hang out and tell whoppers, and we talk politics, religion, abortion, gun control, immigration and such all the time. I don't believe everything I hear on MSNBC and they don't believe everything they hear on Fox News. Here's the stuff we agree on: 1) Nobody thinks an abortion is a life-enriching experience. Even when it's to save the life of the mother it's still a tragedy, but sometimes God gives you a choice between a tragedy and a disaster and you have to do the best you can. 2) If you want to protect the institution of marriage do something about the divorce rate. If two gay people can get married and stay married for 50 years, they are a better example to our children than all the "straight" people who can't keep it in their britches. 3) Teachers shouldn't teach religion and preachers shouldn't teach geometry. 4) Weed doesn't kill teenagers. Alcohol kills teenagers. If you're under 21, both are illegal drugs. 5) Obamacare = Obama + care. The subliminal message is "Obama Cares About You!" What were Republican strategists thinking? No wonder the Democrats trademarked the nickname. 6) Three days in a teriyaki-ginger marinade and slow cooking over a natural charcoal grill with dry mesquite chips makes for some very tasty deer tenderloin. 7) We are Americans, through and through. If you can't take criticism then don't talk to us. We'll fight amongst ourselves just for the fun of it, but if you threaten our house then you'll find out real quick there's only one party in this country, and that's the American party.

June 22, 2013 at 11:24 p.m.
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