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Common ground is possible

In Washington, there is a consensus that there will never be real peace in the Middle East or Northern Ireland, if Israelis and Palestinians and Protestants and Catholics don't somehow find common ground. But that consensus falls apart when we look at American politics.

Here at home, the prevailing view among serious people seems to be that national politics can only be practiced in an adversarial, partisan manner. In our political culture, politicians are graded by their peers, the media, and interest groups on how much they win - within a win-lose framework.

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Certainly, one hears wistful longings for alternatives. A new Speaker of the House is hailed as a coalition-builder. Members of Congress attend a weekend session on civility. Or, after years of wrangling, a bipartisan coalition may even form around reforming Social Security. But when the rubber hits the road, as happened during the impeachment debate - or when abortion is on the table, or affirmative action is under consideration - our politicians almost always assume an absolutist, partisan mentality. The result is a deeply divided government process that isn't good for anyone and is proving less and less able to solve the major problems of our time.

Ironically, the win-lose approach doesn't reflect the way that most Americans live their lives. As a people, we aren't absolutists. When we don't listen and collaborate, most of us have learned that our marriages don't last, we lose touch with our families, and we alienate ourselves from our friends and colleagues.

We usually see virtues in the other's point of view. In fact, most of us hold within ourselves both liberal and conservative attitudes. Most of us have found that our lives work much better when we employ non-adversarial, win-win approaches. Successful relationships - in families, communities, and business - are based on finding ways of working together, to the mutual benefit of the parties. Even politicians on state and local levels regularly cooperate for the common good. In North Dakota, leaders of all political stripes participate in a Consensus Council that develops bipartisan, cross-ideological solutions to such divisive issues as the right to die. Similar non-adversarial approaches are used nationwide to resolve problems involving everything from environmental disputes to how best to carry out AIDS education.

The point is that outside Washington, the political culture has evolved to the point that politicians are often able to work together to find collaborative solutions. In Washington, the emphasis is on single-issue, up-or-down politics. And as long as politicians remain dependent on polarized - and polarizing - interest groups, they are unlikely to move beyond the current take-no-prisoners approach.

The media don't cause this behavior, but provide incentives for it. They tend to cover conflict as if it were the national pastime. Disputes are aired not only on their merits, but also for entertainment value. Conflict is viewed as much more interesting than agreement, and consensus-building is often seen as waffling.

In contrast, politicians who act in a partisan, disruptive manner are consistently rewarded with newspaper space and television air time - key currencies in our political system.

Our political system doesn't have to function this way. People with deeply held, opposing beliefs can find common ground and work together. This has occurred in recent years in such unlikely places as South Africa and Northern Ireland. Other countries regularly set up processes to encourage reconciliation and forgiveness. Yet, in the US, our national politicians are increasingly at war - rooted in the belief that "We're right, and they're wrong."

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Yet, the fact is that even when basic values are at stake, it's possible to find agreements. Anti-abortion and abortion-rights partisans can agree that, despite differences, they can work together to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Similarly, supporters and foes of affirmative action can agree that the inner cities are a national disgrace and, no matter where they are on the political spectrum, they can cooperate on economic empowerment.

Certainly, cooperative action doesn't make disagreements disappear. It does help drain the poison, however.

The US could have a political system where, in the words of Andrew Masondo, a South African military leader, we "understand the differences and act on the commonalities." We could elect politicians to be problem-solvers, committed to finding solutions that satisfy the varying interests of a diverse electorate. We could end - or significantly tone down - our current inclination toward zero-sum politics.

That is the alternative, but the choice is up to all of us. If we're serious, we need to develop - and reward - non-adversarial approaches. The current adversarial system is only inevitable as long as we allow it to be.

*John Marks is president and Susan Collin Marks is executive vice president of Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based nonprofit organization working in societal conflict resolution in the US and abroad.

TO OUR READERS Monitor columnist Godfrey Sperling is on vacation. His column will return on Feb. 23.

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