I got an email last night from Obama’s Ohio State Director Greg Schultz. In the event of Senator Rob Portman’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, he says, “most Americans don’t know anything about him” and “we need to be able to tell the full story about his record on Day One.” He then offers a link to “Share what you think Americans need to know about Senator Portman, and why a Romney-Portman administration would be terrible for middle-class families.” (Emphasis mine.)
Of course. What else could such an administration be? They are, after all, Red Team. Blue Team, on the other hand, is here to save the country.
I admit pointing out Us-and-Them thinking in American presidential campaigns is possibly the lowest-hanging fruit available. Still, I’ve seen plenty of otherwise sharp thinkers fall into it regularly and even habitually. Navigating public policy without partisanship is a bit like walking into a warzone without a gun. But it can be done.
One of the biggest hurdles is the temptation to champion timeless, universal principles. Family values. Social justice. Fiscal responsibility. Public investment. Personal liberty. National security. Progressive reform. As you read these phrases, you instinctually see code words for people and policies that you either support or oppose. Everyone should be fiscally responsible, you might think, but those words have come to represent tax breaks for the wealthy and the slashing of public funds. Or progressive reform sounds nice, but it’s just a mess of added bureaucracy and government encroachment on the lives of its citizens. The universality has been whittled away. Even “Change” quickly became a battle cry.
You could find a great many discerning and articulate citizens in the Tea Party or in Occupy Wall Street, but as political entities, they too have fallen into this trap. Wherever there’s someone sounding the alarm on a grand conspiracy by the intelligentsia to socialize our economy, wherever someone’s protesting the Koch brothers’ feudalization of America, Red Team and Blue Team are at it again. But this time they’ve picked enemies even further removed from their daily lives and much harder to humanize than your neighbor with the wrong sign in his yard.
Initially, both of these movements were just reactions to the Global Financial Crisis. Their timeliness and specificity gave them enormous power to capture attention and shift public conversation. We’ve since adopted their talking points, but Tea Partiers and Occupiers themselves are now objects of ridicule even by moderates. They couldn’t resist the urge to draw battle lines and dig their trenches.
So how do you take a stand on the issue you care about without settling into the party line on others? How can you be an informed citizen when every source has an agenda? Well, even sports fans know their favorite teams don’t have the best players in every position. That’s why fantasy sports (and independent voters) exist. And after waving that foam finger in enough faces, it should become obvious that it’s not going to make a New Yorker cheer for the Red Sox, no matter how enthusiastic you are. So wear your colors if you like, but instead of spitting insults after the game, why not go out for a beer? You probably have more in common than you think.