And after we give up talking?

One premise underlying the notion of democracy is that we're able to talk to each other. We can sift through ideas and proposals, pick them apart, argue, try to persuade, eventually choose some. But the faith I've carried since about fifth grade that we can do that is wearing down. It ebbed this summer when town hall screamers kept people from speaking up for government-run health insurance (an effective tactic, judging from the public option's rough sledding in Congress while 70 to 80 percent of polled Americans support one).

Neal Gabler nailed this in Sunday's Mail Tribune op-ed ("On the right, politics has become religion"). He wrote of America's aggressive extreme-right that, "Rationality won't work because their arguments are faith-based instead of evidence-based "¦ you cannot convince religious fanatics of anything other than what they already believe, even if their religion is political dogma."

I agree with him, and agree generally that this illness incubated on the right side of the political spectrum. But it spread. We now have ourselves a vicious cycle, and it spun up in responses to last Saturday's column, "Maybe an elite state job is bonus enough" (they were posted on another Web site, one favored by progressive Oregonians, because the Daily Tidings readers forum is on hiatus; I'm told it will return soon). In that column I wondered if people on both sides of the persistently bitter fight over public employee compensation could agree that in this economy, something's out of whack when fund managers in the state treasurer's office receive bonuses amounting to 30 percent of their $160,000 base salaries for good investment results. Well, that turns out to be something that a sampling of left-leaning readers can't talk about.

Some couldn't even hear the question. "To tar all of them as overpaid public employees," wrote one, countering a charge nobody made, "sounds to me like stereotyping of the worst sort." Another: "Would someone care to explain how public employees are all a bunch of hogs feeding at the public trough? Or maybe you'd care to explain why all those people teaching your kids, handling your college admissions and financial aid, maintaining your roads and so on don't deserve a living wage." Another seemed to hear me saying that "we in the private sector should resign ourselves to our lot in life, be glad for what we have, and feel entitled to pull everyone down to our level, if we can. Especially those lazy, uppity union workers at the government trough."

By then an ideological stampede left my question in the dust. "Look folks, the wealthy and powerful want the rest of us reduced to serfs one way or another, too scared to raise our voices to protest the usual abuses. Keep folks scared of bankruptcy from medical bills, or beating each other up about whose insurance is better, or ... all familiar tactics. Too bad they work so well."

And, "As the private sector battles to depress wages "¦ we the people are supposed to naturally side with the private-sector corporations over the public-sector workers? Well, yes we are, according to knee-jerk anti-tax rhetoric and relentless anti-government propaganda, funded by the very same always-increasing corporate profits which would be threatened if private-sector workers started to get 'uppity' and demand some of the same benefits and protections public sector workers are condemned for!"

Followed by a comment that brought back the flavor of the health care forums: "I honestly believe [public employee critics] are monsters and that we are being dangerously naive if we think they want a dialog and want to work with us to solve problems." A comment with the words "these people" rarely goes anywhere good. In this case "these people" include screamers like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Dick Armey ("monsters" is too cartoon-like for me, but I do see them willing to rip our civic fabric to shreds for about a buck-fifty); libertarians who authentically believe that government does more harm than good; and plenty of unphilosophical, non-ideological and barely political working people who hate sending Salem tax dollars for pensions and health plans well beyond what they'll ever enjoy.

Practical-minded progressives, those who understand how big a political majority it will take to overcome Salem and Washington lobbies, have to be talking to the third group and some of the second. And a great icebreaker is recognition that at least some small part of the other guy's concern has merit.

But some feel too battered by onslaughts from the right to talk. "The destruction of the American middle class," went another comment, "is not going to stop, and the ideology responsible for it is not going to stop trying, if we on the progressive side try 'to leave ideologies and blame at the door' and make nice."

The phrase he quoted was mine. But forget making nice. Let's make progress. If you know a better way to do that than building an overwhelming majority of Americans around values like hard work and fair compensation — and if you know a better way to do that than by talking to each other again — then I want to know what you know.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.

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