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Americans have more in common than they think this Thanksgiving

Americans have more in common than they think this Thanksgiving
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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and families will gather together, most under coronavirus mandates across the country, in a recent tradition of trying not to erupt into partisan warfare in ideologically mixed homes. Nerves will balance on edge and diplomatic relatives on alert for provocations. Certain words such as Donald Trump, Joe Biden, mailed ballots, rigged election, socialists, fascists, and more will be banished.

Several new entries this year include Wayne County, Emily Murphy, and ascertainment. It is hard to enjoy those mashed potatoes when you are biting your lips. But there is a way to have peace at Thanksgiving tables rife with political tension. Here is my own idea for how to conduct civil conversations and find shared ground without firing cranberries out of roaring mouths. It is based on truth with proven results.

One afternoon in 2005, I cast the last vote of the week with the House of Representatives, then bolted out of the chamber so I could catch a flight back to my district for remarks that evening. I pushed that heavy door so hard that the sharp corner managed to catch the shoe with the lawmaker next to me. I heard a soft howl and then did what every other New Yorker who was late would do and ran around him to hustle on.

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A month later, I was in the members gym on Capitol Hill. I was huffing on an elliptical machine, while the guy next to me was on a steadfast march on the treadmill. “Do you remember me?” he asked and then introduced himself as Tim Johnson, a Republican from Springfield in Illinois, and he reminded me that he was the guy I almost knocked down when I ran out of the chamber and that his shoe was ruined with the heavy door. After I said sorry for that incident, we had a great conversation.

We noticed that in the members gym, Democrats and Republicans battled respectfully. Yet once we went into the chamber, our friendly competition broke into am ugly partisan brawl. So we tried an idea we called the House Center Aisle Caucus. We started to invite Democrats and Republicans to a Chinese restaurant three blocks from Capitol Hill. We sat around the table cluttered with dishes and set forth new rules of debate. We chose an issue then we outlined our differences on that issue. We spent the rest of dinner focused on several areas we could reach shared ground.

Some of the issues were difficult, such as regulation, reproductive rights, and affordable health care. Yet other issues fueled bipartisan consensus, such as limiting the power of the president to start wars without the vital consent of Congress, funding streams for infrastructure, and agricultural security. This is what I learned from this critical exercise.

First, when you free a member of Congress from the confines of a two minute hit on cable news, they are no longer hostage to talking points. They can probe and navigate a serious issue until they find ideological intersections rather than the divisive partisan deadends.

Second, notions break when you talk with someone over dinner. I recall absorbing the articulate criticism from a Pennsylvania Republican of the authorization for use of military force legislation back in 2001 and found his view to be mindful and even left of center. But I would never know it from such occasional verbal altercations in the chamber.

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Third, our bipartisan group welcomed this difficult truth. Democrats and Republicans are simply divided on around 70 percent of the issues, since we tend to join political parties based on affinity and background. But the other 30 percent offers the abundance where we concur. I often believed that Congress could be more productive if we set aside the 70 percent of obstinance and focused on the 30 percent of consensus.

Try your own version tomorrow. Rather than be in combat for intractable differences, drive the conversation toward agreement. It may seem small and insignificant, but that step forward will be liberating and pleasant. If Democrats and Republicans in Congress inside the trenches for partisan warfare can do it, you will be thankful that you can as well.

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.