Tag Archives: partisanship

The Conciliation Imperative

[Another national election is taking place. It’s a good time to remember that we will have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that has dominated too much American rhetoric. The challenger this time seems more open to seeking common ground with political foes. But the President still seems locked into a binary mindset dominated by the abuse of other Americans as scapegoats. He appears to not have the emotional intelligence to change. And it is our collective problem that this characteristic is one source of his popularity.]

Lawrence Wright’s book on the intense negotiations that led to the historical Camp David Accords is a good 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 blood-letting that still occurs along borders that surround the Sinai Peninsula. In modern usage, they might 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 on the outside chance that they could be induced to produce a lasting peace.

It was a risk and an act of political courage, even though new problems developed in the years that followed. 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 a leader.

To be sure, the recent brokered deal between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates is a welcome step. And yet the region still festers, with most of the Muslim world hostile to American leadership.  And the agreements seem more strategic than something closer to a grand gesture of conciliation that would help resolve the issue of a Palestinian homeland.

 

Somehow we are going to have to get beyond celebrating the unilateralism that is now our preferred rhetoric.

The current American challenge of negotiating differences is made worse because of an old national 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 his own form of 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 occasionally 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.

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 too many 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 objective of solving problems.

A Few Lessons From a Congress That Can’t Govern

Congress is the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation.

Most Americans continue to focus on the broken Presidency.  Even so, no one looking for a model of governmental efficiency would get much comfort from a good look at the American Congress. Its twin failures to produce effective public policy and work with the President offer cautionary truths about how not to communicate to produce effective action.

The impeachment process is an aberration, if a necessary one.  But the bipartisanship that characterized the Nixon impeachment is missing.  It’s also true that this President does not think of himself as a true partner with the Congress. That’s obvious now, but even in prior years he showed little interest in helping to shape legislation.

All these caveats don’t fully explain why the two deliberative bodies within the Capitol are examples that no country wants to emulate.  And there are a few more. There is some cooperation at the staff level, and examples of effective bi-partisan cooperation are occasionally on display, as with the passage of ­­­­ several jobs and tax bills in 2012 and 2015­­­­­­­­­­, and in recent bipartisan condemnation of the President’s withdrawal of support for the Kurds in Syria. But the oft-heard cliche is now true: Congress is a broken institution with public approval ratings to match.

While this branch of the federal establishment was not designed to work with the efficiency of a parliament, where a head of government is chosen from the party that wins a plurality of seats, congressional dysfunction now leaves so much on the table that needs to be addressed: everything from immigration reform to timely allocations of funds for infrastructure improvements. We knew this institution was in deep trouble recently when in 2013 a sizable number of members were ready to risk a government default and the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency: all for the purpose of pressing a dubious ideological point.

Members note that they no longer the case that they socialize after work or even share a meal while in session. 

What’s wrong?  What best practices for communicating in organizations are routinely ignored?  Briefly, some of the overwhelming problems on Capitol Hill have their origins in two ineffective communication patterns.

The first is that the body is obviously and hopelessly organized into factions—notably parties, special interest caucuses, and their media—making it likely that members will only work in groups rather than as a whole.  Since most of the process of legislating is done away from the floors of the House and Senate, it falls to party leaders, whips and members to work out in private and with their own caucuses what they will accept by way of a legislative agenda. Differences of opinion have fewer chances to be moderated in environments that would encourage conciliation.  The founders feared this hyper partisanship for good reason.  Indeed, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell moves so cautiously in his narrow partisan lane that it can be hard to tell if his image on a screen is a still photo or video.

This problem is compounded by a long tradition of individual offices set up as separate fiefdoms and spread over four buildings on the east side of the capitol. One wonders how different legislative life would be if the 100 members of the Senate worked in the conditions known to most of white-collar America:  in the same ‘cubicle farm’ spread over one floor. Support staffs who enable the isolation of members could be moved to lower floors. This would encourage more discussion across party lines and more functional coalition-building.

A second problem is the changing character of those seeking high public office. In the age of the internet and 24-hour news there seems to be more interest in the expressive possibilities of serving in public office than actually doing the work of governing.  The requirements to continually raise campaign funds and screen time are all-consuming.

In the lore of Congress there has always been an expectation that the “show horses” would sometimes win out over the “work horses.”  A retired Lyndon Johnson once complained to a CBS producer about the “pretty boys” created by the growth of television.  The former Senate Majority leader’s point was that visual media gave rise to a new breed of members more interested in the theater of politics than finding ways to bridge differences.

Congress is simply the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation.  So it offers some cautionary reminders to the rest of us working in complex bureaucracies. First, we can’t afford to isolate ourselves from others we expect to sign on to our initiatives. Leading  effectively still means using communication to build and sustain relations with those who have different views.  In addition, since its a solid axiom that we more easily find comity in small groups, trying to forge leadership from large bodies needs to be seen for the problem it frequently is: the organizational equivalent of trying to get even a few dozen college professors to form a single straight line.