WASHINGTON – The last time I stood here, by this chain-link fence outside the Capitol building, I was clutching a useless Purple Gate ticket, huddled around a stranger’s portable radio to hear President Obama deliver his inauguration address. “On this day,” he said, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

People hugged and laughed and cried. I thought they understood that when Obama said we will work together, he meant it. He meant working with people who disagree; working across aisles and faiths and color lines to find common ground, listen to new viewpoints and engage in real debate.

Others thought so, too. More than 200,000 people attended the Rally to Restore Sanity on Oct. 30, carrying signs that said “Compromise is not a dirty word” and “My fiance is a Republican and we love reasonable discourse.”

No one took a stand against sanity. But there were people in the crowd, in the papers and on TV who continue to rail against civic — and civil — debate, a big part of sanity. When Sean Hannity says that Democrats in Congress should be tortured at Guantanamo Bay, or Rachel Maddow calls Bill Clinton the best Republican president ever, they are rewarded by their respective camps.

It’s more fun to be an extremist. It’s easier to preach to the choir. And it’s better for ratings. When CNN tried to be middle-of-the-road, it fell to third place, behind Fox News and MSNBC, whose own ratings improved when it moved to the left.

Last week, someone told me that liberals should never go on Fox News and that conservatives have no place at NPR. But I’m not less of a liberal if I talk to Republicans. I’m not less Jewish because I married someone Catholic. We don’t give up who we are when we reach out to someone else.

There have been many calls in the past week for the president to demonstrate renewed leadership. Many of them have been for compromise, bipartisanship and, yes, sanity.

But some have been from Democrats who believe that compromise is the same as caving in. These are, of course, the same people who screamed about George W. Bush’s sycophants, mock Republican purity tests and vilify Republicans for refusing to come to the table.

Republicans deserve blame for this — they’ve made it clear that they intend to use obstructionism as a solution to the nation’s problems. As John Boehner said last week about health care (though it may as well have been the Republican rallying cry): “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything — we can do, to kill it, stop it, slow it down.”

But Democrats, if they refuse to come to the table, will deserve blame as well. If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them. This is not to say that everything is up for debate — civil rights, for example, shouldn’t be subject to compromise or depend on the whim of the majority. Yet most of our real, hard problems won’t be solved unilaterally.

As I stood shivering outside on Jan. 20, 2009, Obama said of earlier generations: “They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.”

People may wish that Obama had done as he pleased over the past two years, knowing that 2010 would bring a transition away from Democratic congressional control. But he set an example that lived up to his own rhetoric. He wanted to work together, to create buy-in through bipartisanship. Politically, Obama shouldn’t have reached out to Republicans last summer on health care, but the effort was principled and consistent, and I respect him for trying.

Now, trying won’t be enough. After Tuesday, we can do one of two things. We can retreat into the safety of our own echo chambers, as Stephen Colbert did on Saturday, hiding half-naked in his “fear bunker,” and assuring ourselves that nothing will get done. Or we can come out into the open, like Colbert clothed in the cape of Captain America, to talk to one another and try to solve some problems. Each party can make its own choice — I hope they choose the one that makes the country just a little more sane.

Lauren Hogan lives in Washington and works for the National Black Child Development Institute.