Last week we voted, and by and large we disagreed—the winner barely squeaking out a majority, and the loser gathering 59 million people to his way of thinking. However any of us voted, whatever any of us believes, these words from the victor summed up the contest: “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.”
After four years of Washington infighting, Barack Obama should know. In fact, you’d think he’d be sick of it by now. But instead, the newly re-elected president went on to—well, argue—that arguments are “a mark of our liberty,” reminding us that “as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter.”
But let’s face it. Not all arguments are equal. It’s one thing to be passionate about your views; it’s another to hate the other side. Somewhere along the way over the past 20 years, we have turned debate into hate. Over the next 20, we must do better—far better, for we will be determining not just the fate of our country but of our planet.
To meet that challenge, leaders on both sides must do five things—all of which go against the grain of our current political culture:
- Ground debate in data that both parties consider relevant and meaningful. This is a lot harder than it may sound. Each party has its own view of what data is relevant and meaningful. That by itself is not the problem. If anything, it’s a good thing, because each party will naturally focus on facts the other misses or overlooks. The problem is that neither party takes the other party’s data seriously. As it now stands, each party sweeps inconvenient data away, discrediting not just the data, but the people who are “mad” or “bad” enough to use it. We’d get much better debate and a lot less hate if both parties stopped denigrating and discounting the other’s data and instead addressed it, even if only to debate its relevance or validity.
- Speak to the best in both parties and stop playing to the lowest common denominator. Over the past couple of decades, each party has ceded more and more control to their more extreme ends. Now increasingly hostage to the fringe, lawmakers are finding it harder and harder to lead. But what if, instead of appealing to the worst in their own party, a small number sought to appeal to the best in the other party? What if they spoke a little less to their own party’s animosities and anxieties and a little more to the other party’s core values and principles? This shift from the worst to the best in each party would not only improve the quality of our debates but the quality of our solutions as well.
- Look for common interests; get relentlessly creative when interests clash. The overwhelming majority of Americans may share the same hopes and dreams for the future, but as Obama pointed out that hasn’t spared us from gridlock. So what will?
Two things. The first is a laser-like focus on the interests, hopes, concerns, and dreams all Americans share, so we never lose sight of what makes us indivisible. The second is a relentless commitment to working together to invent solutions that meet each party’s divergent interests well enough to be acceptable and neither party’s perfectly.
Doing that requires equal doses of maturity and creativity. Maturity means accepting that we can’t always get our own way, and we may have to share. Creativity means inventing solutions neither party could imagine alone—solutions that speak to the wide-ranging threats and opportunities we face as a nation and not too quickly solving one at the expense of another. It means, for example, asking how we can address climate change while growing our economy, not just tomorrow but today—and staying at it until we invent something that addresses both, if not perfectly, much better than what we have now.
- Take some personal responsibility for outcomes you don’t like. Heading up to the election, it was anybody’s guess (except for Nate Silver) which party would prove victorious. As it turned out, the Democrats won and the Republicans lost both the Presidency and the Senate. Still, I can easily imagine an alternative universe where the Democrats lost and the Republicans won. In both universes—actual and alternative—I can hear the losing party’s politicians and pundits saying the same thing: the other guy stole it, the other guy lied, the other guy ran an ugly campaign, those people (poor or rich) made it impossible for my guy to win, they’ve made it impossible to address our nation’s problems while we’re doing everything we can. To listen to them, you’d think neither party ever did anything to cause a single problem, yet problems aplenty we have.
In all honesty, I’d say it was pathetic, but it fails to evoke even the slightest pathos. What it does evoke is the same disdain I have whenever I see adults getting on their high horse to profess one thing (people should take personal responsibility) while blithely doing another (blaming everyone but themselves). Now that is a recipe for hate and disdain. As such, it is not just in our national interest to stop it, but in our leaders’ self-interest. Look no further when trying to explain why the electorate has lost so much confidence in and respect for its leaders.
- Show a little courage and a lot of grit. None of the above is easy to do. As I said, it goes against the grain of our political culture, making it hard for any one leader to take the risk of behaving differently. Most political cynics, even realists, would say it’s just never going to happen. I disagree. I think most of those who run for office have a passion to serve, and they took a lot of risk to get there. Trouble is, once there, they got caught in culture’s grip, where they now feel damned if they go along and damned if they don’t.
But what if a handful of these leaders refused to stay caught? What if they reached out across party lines and built an alliance for change? What if, like Rosa Parks or Soviet dissidents, they simply stopped going along?
I bet we’d soon see a shift, even a movement, emerge. All it takes is a little courage and a lot of grit on the parts of a few people. Think of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the end of apartheid in South Africa. There are just too many examples to discount them all.
History tells us that if there is a deep, abiding need—for justice, for liberty, for survival—and surely there is here, all it takes is a few good people to get it started. The rest will follow.
Now consider this. While you may rightly argue that the root cause of our current political dysfunction is structural—campaign financing, gerrymandering, primaries that drive an electorate to the extremes—only our leaders can change those structural factors. And as long as the existing political culture persists, those leaders will be unable and unwilling to do so.
We have to start somewhere. I’m looking for a few good men and women to create a coalition committed to changing our political culture. Agreeing to more debate and less hate would be a good place to start.