"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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
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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