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Joshpe: Bring humanity and reason back to political debate

Our nation's political dialogue has been hacked by

Our nation's political dialogue has been hacked by people on both sides of the aisle who believe that compromise only leads to a parade of worst-case scenarios. Photo Credit: Tribune Media Services / Paul Tong

Like many other conservative Republicans, I am receptive to sensible gun restrictions that are consistent with the Second Amendment. I've written about this online for the National Review, American Thinker and for other publications. That position -- seemingly uncontroversial in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting massacre -- has sparked the ire of many of my friends on the right, some of whom have accused me of heresy.

The entire debate, or lack thereof, is a microcosm of the dysfunctional political culture that we must change.

When people explain their hostility to my position, it becomes apparent that most don't object to the substance. Some readily acknowledge that there are changes, such as closing the federal gun-show loophole, they find acceptable. Instead, what bothers them is that I would say anything at all that reeks of compromise or concession and that could be used by the left to further its agenda.

That's because many on the right harbor a deep fear that liberals, including President Barack Obama, aim to fundamentally reshape American society and lead us down the slippery slope to a point where firearms are essentially banned. Similarly, many on the left fear that compromise on certain issues -- such as public spending or access to abortion -- will lead to a total rollback of cherished rights or entitlements. They, too, are quick to dismiss ideas, even plausible ones, if they don't like the messenger. The National Rifle Association's potentially viable suggestion to put armed guards in schools is a case in point.

Our nation's political dialogue has been hacked by people on both sides of the aisle who believe that compromise only leads to a parade of worst-case scenarios. They aren't interested in having a debate. Instead, they want to control the narrative.

In this world, civility and concession don't sell. Conflict, fear and turmoil generate ratings, money for special interest groups and motivation for core constituencies. Politics is nothing more than a sport where the goal is to beat the other team and rack up points in the process. There's no glory in a tie.

On the gun debate -- and seemingly on every other issue facing our nation -- the loudest voices frame our choices as binary. We're led to believe we have to pick one extreme or the other, because every compromise is cast as a betrayal of some principle or value. Former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, after supporting the Iraq War, was essentially banished from the Democratic Party. Some conservatives protested the re-election of John Boehner as speaker of the House after his "fiscal cliff" compromise.

We can't expect consensus on every matter, of course, but we shouldn't accept complete dysfunction either. Even in Washington, there should be room for bipartisan compromise and agreement. Until we start from the assumption that most Americans, whether on the left or the right, have good intentions, we will be deceived into believing that our political opponents are our enemies and our current choices the only ones.

Changing this culture starts by electing leaders who have credibility. President Barack Obama might have more of it on gun control if he defied his own constituents more often and sought broader consensus on other issues, like health care reform and spending cuts. And conservatives' objections to gun restrictions might be given more weight if they showed some inclination to make concessions, rather than appearing to say "no" reflexively to anything Obama says.

The optimal response to the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., like many problems we face, is complicated. But it should be informed by balance, sobriety and humanity. There's too little of that in American politics these days, and there won't be more until voters demand better.

Brett Joshpe, co-author of "Why You're Wrong About the Right: Behind the Myths -- The Surprising Truth About Conservatives," is an attorney in New York City.