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OPINION: Active pursuit of common ground only way to bridge political divide

September 8th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

A couple nights ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow who lived in rural Alaska for many decades and had been deeply involved in the communities he lived in as an elected official and emergency responder.

We started out the conversation on common ground, bemoaning the lack of civic involvement (what's with 20 percent voter turnout in local elections) and the frustration that the state had yet to find a real solution to its fiscal crisis.

Interestingly enough, however, it soon became apparent that we had different opinions on the best path to responsible development and many other issues, such as the struggle between state and federal regulations. These differences came as a surprise after covering so much territory where we were of the same mind. If we had started off with a discussion about whether a large gold mine could ever be built safely in the headwaters of the world's largest wild salmon resource, the conversation might have ended before it began, and I likely never would have known that there was so much we agreed on.

As we head back into election season, the polarity in our state and nation is likely to get even more inflamed. On a statewide level, we must come to terms with how we are going to pay for goods and services as oil revenues dwindle. There are those who want to pursue the next great project as the solution, and those who see the only answers in decidedly less sexy options like income tax. And there are those who think cutting state spending more deeply is the only action that makes sense.

On the federal level, we are seeing some huge gaps in political philosophies over issues like immigration, health care and environmental regulation. It's rare to see much debate on those issues that increases understanding — most of the discourse rarely gets beyond a rehashing of details everyone has heard before.

What every great leader knows, however, is that the only way to move forward is to first establish common ground, and then move forward from that spot. For example, most of us want the next generation of Alaskans to enjoy the same unobstructed opportunities we experienced, maybe with a few less power outages and potholes, even. No one want to see fish populations die off or waters polluted by oil. No one want to see our economy erode to the point that all the hard-won infrastructure crumbles. Only a tiny minority wish any true ill will against their fellow man, regardless of his or her country of origin or ability to afford health care. So while it may seem like there is no common ground, there is more we agree on than don't, truly.

The problem is, we've stopped having those conversations, both as individuals and in political spheres. We stopped trying to find the common ground and instead appear to be hell-bent on shoving our version of the world down the throat of those who see a different path forward. Oddly, we are all choking as a result.

It is critically important that we all grow up and swallow the pill that to move forward, we must find commonality with those who are quickly becoming demonized in our eyes.

If the state of the state and nation bothers you, and they should, there is nothing to be gained by standing on the sidelines wringing your hands. No, we all need to get in there and start talking. When we run into an issue on which we disagree, move on. The most important thing is to keep talking.

At the end of the conversation with my new friend, I had a better understanding about the frustrations he had with unnecessary red tape and he, I hope, had a little more awareness about the fear many of us have that current environmental regulations are toothless.

We recalled how Sen. Ted Stevens used to meet with Hawaiian Sen. Daniel Inouye regularly, despite being members of different political parties. The two often supported each other's political efforts, finding common ground in an arena where deviation from voting along party lines often came with consequences.

That's a good model to follow — building from conversations to a long-time relationship with people who do not share your political views, but with whom you know you share common experiences and aspirations. We should all seek out those people now, invite them to coffee or dinner and together, talk about what the future holds for our state and our nation. Because the sooner we can get over this idea of us and them, the quicker we can get to the real work of moving forward with a plan that will serve us all.


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