Somehow we are going to have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that is our preferred rhetoric.
Lawrence Wright’s book on the intense negotiations that led to the historical Camp David Accords is a timely indicator of what is so frequently missing in our politics. Thirteen Days in September (2014) documents the efforts of President Jimmy Carter to find a way out of the chronic Arab/Israeli impasse, working with Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat as his partners. Without doubt the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize had—and still has—the instincts of a peacemaker. By contrast, prior to the negotiations in 1978 Begin and Sadat had contributed more than their share to the periodic blood-letting that still defines the disputed borders that surround the Sinai Peninsula. In modern usage both would have justifiably been labeled terrorists. And yet Carter put his already shaky presidency on the line to cloister these foes in the mountains of western Maryland. There was only an outside chance that Begin and Sadat could be induced to produce a lasting peace.
It was the ultimate act of political courage. Presidents and congressional politicians rarely put themselves on so uncertain a course unless there are guaranteed outcomes. And that’s a problem. A politician who won’t risk failed efforts at conciliation is little more than a poseur: a pretender to the role of policy-maker.
The challenge of negotiating differences is made worse because of an old American habit of honoring heroes who are supposedly unsullied by the impulse to compromise. We cherish the self-made person, the inner-directed leader, the lone single agent who rejects anything less than what they brought to the bargaining table. This preference plays out in the narrative tropes that show up in our love of John Wayne’s film characters or James Bond’s free-style execution of British foreign policy. We like our heroes to be dominant, assertive, fearless and ready to bolt at the first suggestion that they might make a concession. And so they continue to come in waves of narratives that celebrate intellectual unilateralism: everyone from cinema superheroes, to larger-than-life thinkers like Apple’s Steve Jobs. Even the small screen cherishes the mini-rebellions of office workers stuck in the anonymity of drab cubicle farms.
Our preference for the defiant loner has grown so great that words to describe the team player now read like labels of surrender. “Compromise,” “concession,” “conciliation,” and “mediation” all carry the odor of appeasement. And so our interest in performing the rhetoric of defiance is self-defining; its a cheap way to create a persona suggesting “strong values” and ostensibly settled thinking. Even history’s great conciliators—among them: Nelson Mandela, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln—seem more distant than the characters we conjure up to illustrate “decisive” and “uncompromising” leadership. One can only guess at what former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani had in mind when he called Russia’s increasingly dictatorial Vladimir Putin a true “leader.” The statement is a reminder that unearned certainty can be the perfect sign of a fool.
Carter’s reputation is always caught in a vice of opposing impulses. His willingness to listen to all sides makes him look weak. And yet the rhetorical opposition rituals we seem to favor have the effect of releasing their participants from any obligation to find common-ground with others. It’s an unhelpful kind of opaqueness that fits our age of self-absorption. But it comes at the expense of the chance to promote joint action and shared beliefs.
If we are wondering where to begin, I suggest that we reconsider the kinds of people we want to serve in legislative offices. Deliberative bodies require deliberators. And yet our Congress is filled with self-styled media stars who show little interest in finding ways to attain mutual consent. They show up for their close-ups in hearings. But they are often absent from caucus rooms where differences must get hammered out.
Somehow we are going to have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that is now our preferred rhetoric. It’s a recommendation that especially holds for our chosen leaders, but also for most of us as we weigh the need for ideological purity against the more functional need to work with others.