Elsie BrownIn the Nov. 1 edition of “This American Life,” Lisa Pollak asked several voters how they feel about their political opponents. Democrats and Republicans alike expressed distrust of the other side.

One conservative even described liberals as “selfish” because “they don’t want to take care of themselves. They want the government to take care of them." Liberals and conservatives both use that label “selfish,” whether it’s for “handouts” or “trickle-down” policies.

Both sides use the same insults so often, but at the same time, both sides use words like “truth” or “creating jobs” to describe their own ideas. Words, positive and negative, can mean very different things depending on who says them.

Neither side really understands each other; so much of what we say can be reduced to buzzwords that lead one side to assume the worst from the other. Unless we know what we’re really talking about, our discourse will continue to go nowhere.

As a debater, I know how important it is to define your terms. We all have similar goals that we condense into small words; to achieve those goals, we first should see what the words mean to both sides. Then, we need to find the overlap between definitions. When there is clear agreement on what, specifically, needs to get done, it’ll be easier to see how to most sensibly do it.

The most productive discourse comes from open, respectful discourse where both sides are clearly understood. It’s not like every voter should become a moderate — but every voter should be aware of their disagreements and their common ground with the other end of the spectrum.

Left and right, we all want freedom. Does that mean more government protection of rights? Does that mean less intervention in people’s lives? What does ideal freedom look like? What currently endangers it?

Left and right, we all want life. Does that mean less war? Does that mean broader access to health care? Where does life begin or end? How can policy improve life?

Left and right, we all want prosperity. Does that mean stimulating suppliers or demanders? Or does that mean letting the market handle itself? Who prospers now? Who isn’t? Why?

I’ve been a politics nerd for four years, and I still struggle with those questions sometimes. But I can answer them at some level or another. The next step is figuring out why others would say my answers are wrong.

Effective debaters are prepared to take any side on an issue, even if it’s not where their hearts belong. My heart may be on the left, but I’m confident that conservatives want freedom and prosperity just as much as I do. I’m confident that you, my friends on the right, are coming from a perspective of compassion, not greed, and I’m hopeful that you see I want to come from this perspective too.

To answer the big questions, we just need to define our terms and be prepared for the clash of ideas. Clash doesn’t have to mean distrust or stalemate; disagreements are inevitable, so understanding them makes it easier to find where consensus is possible.

Hopefully, a consensus among voters will trickle up to mean consensus among legislators. I want progress. You want progress. Let’s figure out what we both mean when we say that. Then we can make it happen.

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