Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Public discourse in a nation full of boneheads

Ossification occurs when soft tissue turns into bone. Sometimes this is good, as when an infant's soft cartilage transforms into healthy normal bone as the child grows. Sometimes this is bad, as when spots in breast tissue calcify and can indicate cancer. Malicious ossification is a perfect metaphor for the current state of our national political discourse. Places where we need flexible negotiation, respectful persuasion, and effectual compromise have become increasingly stiff, alarmist, disrespectful, and polarized. The rest of our national problems pale in comparison to this problem, because no solutions to the other problems can even be rationally discussed and no workable solutions can be arrived at in the current climate.

A statesman is listed in the Encarta® World English Dictionary as "a senior politician who is widely respected for integrity and impartial concern for the public good." This idea of a statesman denotes a leader who is broad-minded, and can be trusted to reach satisfying solutions quite apart from temporary winds of political bias. The voice of the statesman is missing from our current public discourse. In particular, most people seem to insist on leaders who will "stand up" for their viewpoints. What "stand up" means is, they want leaders who are inflexible, thoughtlessly opinionated, unafraid to be rude, and completely uncompromising; such leaders are celebrated. Any form of compromise at all, any flexibility in negotiation, any incremental success, any slight bit of give towards the interests of those on the other side of the aisle, is seen as an unforgivable weakness. Anyone who would command respect from their core constituency must lead in this way or they will quickly lose their respect and support. Frankly, this is particularly a problem on the right, but the left is a culprit just as much in more subtle ways. There is little doubt that this has become the nature of political culture in this day and age.

Real power resides in the art of persuasion, not in the stubborn and harsh refusal to compromise. Persuasion happens when one side recognizes and respects the other side's interests with true empathy, and thus is able to make ones own interests seem to coincide in a desirable way where they once did not seem so. A statesman has the breadth of mind to reach a reasonable compromise which supports a good number of one's own interests while supporting a good number of the other side's interests as well. Another way of looking at this is, a statesman is able to lose well, to lose some battles while winning the more important ones. A statesman recognizes the interests of the opposing side as the mother lode of success, and is careful to treat these interests, though not his own, with tremendous gravity and respect.

However, in our general political discourse, virtually every issue is painted as an urgent life-threatening, do-or-die thing, and failure or even slight compromise spells the end of the United States of America as we know it. There is no middle ground, no negotiation; no compromise is possible at all. Statesmanship does not seem to be possible because the constituency demands otherwise.

Let's look at a few examples. (Remember, I am not looking at whether you or I agree with one side or the other on these issues, I am using them as examples of ossification in public discourse.) In economics, those on the right would like to see a fairly pure laissez faire free market system, with little or no government intervention. Most on the right seem unwilling to acknowledge that a lack of government intervention and oversight contributed to the market excesses that gave us the current economic crisis. We may be able to talk about this, but a conversation requires a willingness to listen to reasonable opposing viewpoints and includes the possibility of persuasion. I do not sense this possibility in many of my friends on the right. To them, anything besides pure free market economics is socialism
On the other hand, it is a legitimate concern when the federal government begins to take significant ownership in private companies such as GM. We are not a socialist state and such a move stirs true fears that the administration has no grasp of the implications of what it is doing. Again, it is difficult to raise such a point with my friends on the left, although the culture of the left has not yet ossified with as hard a resistance to questions about its economic ideologies and actions as the right. I believe this has little to do with statesmanship, and everything to do with a lack of clear thinking about the issue on the liberal side of the aisle.

On social issues, let's take the example of abortion. I have friends on the right who would not blink an eye to call Obama a "baby-killer", and if you challenge this at all you must be someone who supports baby-killing as well. It doesn't do to remind them that Obama has said he would like to see abortions reduced or eliminated; if he doesn't reverse Roe v. Wade then he is a baby killer. People on the left are equally clueless about the power and centrality of this issue to people on the right. Taking the perfectly reasonable assumption that an unborn child is a real human being, isn't it reasonable to assume that abortion is murder? If people on the left aren't even going to try to realize the power of this issue, how can they hope to speak persuasively to the interests of those on the right in a constructive way?

We are in a time when I think we can say that respect for our leaders has largely died. If you say, I respected Reagan, or, I respect Obama, then you are part of the problem. Respect is tested when an honorable man with somewhat different viewpoints than your own is in office; it is possible to respectfully disagree. There is an increasing pattern of disrespect and even hatred for leaders on the opposite side of one's aisle. President Bush was vilified to the point that he couldn't even speak or walk without being viciously ridiculed no matter what the message. President Obama can't even address students with an innocuous "do good in school" message without being compared to Hitler and Stalin and accused of brainwashing our youth. No leader is perfect, and we all have genuine disagreements with what they are doing and how they are going about it, but if we are going to have civil discourse then there has to be a level of civility. In my opinion this is entirely missing. There are certainly ways to persuasively and intelligently disagree with policies without this kind of puerile and hostile disrespect. What do we think we are going to accomplish this way? It is similar to Arab terrorists thinking they somehow advance their cause by flying planes into buildings; do they think the west is suddenly going to come to their senses and believe in Allah when they do this? Similarly, do we think that our hostility and blatant disrespect is going to influence the other side, or further our interests in any way?

The divisiveness in our current state of national dialog really has very little to do with our leaders, and has much more to do with our citizenry. Our citizenry has been educated almost exclusively on a vocational basis, and our schools and universities are much more focused on producing useful narrowly specialized workers who make enough money to shop than producing intelligent generally educated citizens. The universities are particularly at fault. We are paying for this now in a big way. Few people understand or desire statesmanship, few people understand what they are looking for in a leader or in the nuances of his policies.

The real way to influence is not to vilify leaders, but to approach an area of disagreement with the respect for opposing viewpoints that is genuinely merited, and to respectfully seek compromise solutions that respect the interests of both parties. There is genuine impetus for leaders to seek this, they are not well served by pushing for a selfish agenda by brute force tactics, and the leaders themselves know it well. Wise leaders are sensitive to the need for delicacy, and if they are not wise, they soon will be forced to become so. People on the other side of the ideological aisle can depend on the leader's need to accommodate them. This need to accommodate is a real force, and we should work in concert with that need to see things happen instead of resorting to extreme and untenable agendas and calling political leaders buffoons or Hitlers.

This complete lack of a willingness on either side to be respectfully aware of the other side's interests and viewpoints, the increasingly hostile form of discourse on virtually every issue, is revealing a society that is diseased and no longer able to productively dialog and peacefully resolve its own problems. When the dialog becomes more shrill and disrespectful, thoughts begin to turn to other means than words to accomplish one's ends. We are fools if we think this is not heading toward some form of violent conflict. It is high time for right thinking people to stand up to people in their own camp and call down the foolish and shrill name-calling, and to work from within to call for statesmanship and effectual negotiation.

So, what should president Obama do in this strange climate? The nation badly needs a 'come to Jesus' speech where he spells out the fears of the right, and how his views really do oppose theirs, but also, how his administration is served by coming to the table to compromise. Bring up some embarrassing quotes of people in his administration, and point out that as the leader, he has no tolerance for such things and how such statements really do hurt his cause. He really needs to make the case that this is more than political rhetoric or bluster. A few examples of how it really has hurt his cause would help make the point.

Abortion really needs to be frankly addressed. Most people on the left do not understand the power and centrality of this issue for a lot of people on the right. Point out that this is not a black and white issue, and we can work toward compromise solutions that really do reduce abortions, which is what everyone wants anyway. The president needs to ask for cooperation in a way that is realistic and doesn't obliterate the interests of the right or the left to come up with ways to reduce abortions going forward. I think this could have more impact on reducing abortions than all of the hard-line legislation and angry pro-life rallies in the world, and it would be coming from a democratic leader! It is a great opportunity for the president to prove himself a statesman in a very important context.

The most important thing the president could do would be to point out that if the nation cannot on the whole agree to a way to have a civil and respectful dialog, then we will continue to have a pattern where those who are temporarily in power have to push as hard as they can while they have power to trample the interests of the other side, because both sides realize there is no room for persuasion, no room for useful negotiation, no room for statesmanship, because there can be no statesmen as long as the people demand harsh stands. Implore everyone on both sides to cry out for intelligence, for statesmanship, for brilliant compromises, and to reject grandstanding fools who play well to the vocal core but are useless to the real problems and solutions at hand.

A far more important question is this: what should YOU AND I do? We need to seek a far more penetrating insight into the interests and desires of those we disagree with, and speak empathetically and persuasively in a civil and respectful dialog. We need to begin to cry out for statesmen, not hard-line opportunistic loud-mouths. We need to realize that civility and respect and awareness of the interests of those we disagree with is the only way we will ever see our own agendas achieved in a sustainable way. We all need to grow up. The cancerous ossification is not in Bush or Obama, it is in each of us. We need the humility to recognize that we are a nation of boneheads, and seek a grassroots transformation to living able thinking minds.


Betty McNeely said...

You live what you write.

Hedrich said...

Nicely done, Jim. I appreciate your thoughts. I've been thinking much the same lately.

Richard Jordan said...

I agree with the sentiment. I am troubled by some of my conservative friends apparent need to find a rallying cry at every opportunity. Speech to school kids, flag disappearing from Obama's jet, birth certificate, etc, etc. However, as a firm believer in the quaint notion that "a govt. that governs least, governs best"; I find myself welcoming gridlock. Since I truly believe that the federal govt. has grossly overstepped it's bounds decades ago, I kinda want my representatives to draw a line in the sand. Just do it respectfully.

Jen Stokes said...

Jim, I appreciate your thoughts :) Before voting for Obama, I spent over a year and 1000+ hours in research. What I found most disappointing during that time was the lack of people to bounce ideas off of, to have insightful discussion. People had trite sayings on why the Republican party is best and the Democratic party is evil. It didn't matter that much of what they said wasn't true - they didn't *want* to discuss, they didn't *want* new insight, they didn't *want* to see the data. It was a case of everyone around them saying the same thing, so they must be right. Sundie was talking to a friend in Colorado who said that anyone who voted for Obama was evil. Sundie said, "Actually, my really good friend voted for him." The friend said, "Well then she must be stupid." Sundie said, "You have no idea." (She was being sarcastic, but he didn't know that!) I agree that we need to be able to debate with respect. I also think there's a lot of fear out there which sets people up to be inflexible and friend-or-foe oriented. Well, enough for now - why didn't we talk about this stuff on those long bike rides with the church group? Hahaha probably because I'm a big coward and keep my thoughts to myself.

Jon Cordas said...

Historically, constituents have always elected candidates that reflect personal and regional influences and ideologies. In the past, all political parties had a wide spectrum of views. Current polarization reduces the ability for statesmanship to manifest or develop.

Do the people "want" polarized gridlocked politics. Nope. They protest and form Tea Parties. Throw the current bums out is the new populist mantra. But if the political "system" is broken and insulated, anybody in office will be a dysfunctional policy maker for the public good.

What narrowed and polarized the political parties and subsequent discourse? 24 hour news. 20th Century media (newspapers, network news, magazines) could ascribe a viewpoint, but only the immersive 24 hour environment could create an entire worldview and political reality. And this is what happened, particularly in the Republican Party. Fox News, Rush, and Beck serve as groupthink "mind guards" to bully compliance into their orthodox ideology. There is no room for dissent or critical thinking. A dysfunctional Democratic Congress, who have the numbers to pass any legislation they wish, demonstrate a more classic spectrum of political views within their Party.

Why are the Democrats more diverse than the Republicans (unlike their characterization they are all "liberals")? Democrats and indeed liberals don't have an immersive 24 hour environment which creates a comprehensive worldview or perspective (even though CNN & MSNBC are characterized so by Fox). So there are all manner of people exercising diverse views within the Democratic tent. It has always been difficult to create good policy and moderates from both Parties have historically been involved in important policy decisions. The current polarized climate prevents such collaboration.

So which is more dysfunctional and dangerous, a diverse Democratic Party who is unable to govern, or a polarized Republican Party which can simply oppose? Both suck. So throw the bums out.

It is easy to say that people deserve the Government they get, that they're myopic and uninformed. But the public part of the public good are just people. They're probably quite good at what they do for a living, working with their hands or behind a desk. Americans are generally industrious and innovative. They're decent for the most part and want a better life for their kids. But they're not smart in political policy. They never have been. All you can get from the public is a gut response and emotional reaction. This is all history shows you ever got. Should we expect more?

Multinationals and special interest agendas have supplanted the public good. The best and brightest minds flock to Wall Street to create predatory practices for a society forced to live on credit. The world is a different place than it was 20 years ago.

So how do we move in the right direction? Throwing the bums out only to put new bums in isn't the answer. Changes may have to come as during war. Populations get sick of senseless cycles of death and fear. We need solutions to crucial strategic problems. People may just have to get fed up with polarity, ideologies, empty rhetoric and politicians who don't offer solutions. People will have to get fed up with Fox News, which is a magnificently effective propaganda machine. However, most of the Fox worldview relies on dire predictions of what might happen or will happen, not what is happening. As time passes and the dire predictions don't come to pass, I hope people will get tired of the fear-mongering and hate the Fox ideology is based on and turn their backs on it. People will have to significantly abandon Fox for our situation to change, since it is Fox which is creating and sustaining the current divisive political climate. Their only goal is to make money and put their Party in power. Everybody's a Socialist unless it's your Party.


Jon Cordas said...

I'd love to see a "Solutions Party" emerge which leverages what Government does well (set a direction and provide funding and incentives) and what the Private Sector does well (innovate, invent, and implement).

I'm personally fed up with politics. Like many others, I hoped Obama would produce radical change and he's more business as usual as far as I'm concerned. So I'm sick of hearing about Left and Right and Parties. If I don't hear solutions, it's a waste of my time. Maybe over time, others will come to the same conclusion.

So what are we to do personally? (1) We need standards of what is appropriate and acceptable and reject what is not. For me, the "public good" is a moral compass in terms of policy, how does the policy affect most of the country's working people and small business owners. (2) Decide what the crucial strategic issues are that we must address as a nation to be globally competitive. For me, those are the financial system, energy, education, health care and the environment, in that order. Within each of your crucial issues, identify the top one or two priorities or bottlenecks hindering forward progress. I can identify those in all of my issues but will save it for another piece. (3) We should personally turn our backs on partisanship, ideologies, and polarization. We should waste no time on it and encourage others to do the same. (4) We should personally commit to influence creating solutions within our communities, and do what is in the realm of our passion and conviction to make a difference in our towns and nation.