Not Only Congress Is Polarized
Political paralysis in Washington is not something unique to the Beltway. Our elected representatives accurately reflect the deep divisions between well-intentioned people like us throughout our country.
We human beings are influenced more by our emotional reactions than by logic. Although we honestly believe we are supremely rational, it is rare that we coolly and clinically dissect a complex situation outside our field of expertise, without succumbing first to an instinctive moral calculation that shortcuts and simplifies the analysis.
We think in stories. Stories connect abstract reality to our everyday experience and understanding. It is impossible for any one story to capture every detail of reality. As in the fable of the blind people describing an elephant, each touching a different part, reality can seem quite different to each of us, depending upon our perspective.
It is important to be careful when choosing the story that best captures reality for you. When we identify with a political party or ideology, it is like picking a sports team. We become wrapped up in their story and relatively immune to the truth to be found in the point of view of the opposition.
Political consultants and moneyed interests with a stake in rigging our system have figured this out. They do their very best to manipulate our votes by accentuating our fears and widening divisions instead of seeking commonsense compromise and practical solutions.
Their ability to use us as tools to punish the politicians, and the imperative of raising huge sums of money to win re-election, have given them undue influence to achieve policy results favoring the few and well-connected over the average citizen.
Besides being a major factor behind the recent financial crisis, this has created untold cost, impeding us as we try to resolve every major issue confronting us in recent decades. Sensible solutions seem to have slipped beyond our grasp. For each team and its supporters, winning has become more important than good policy.
We need to break the "tribal" and cultural bonds that separate us so that "divide and conquer" will no longer work against us.
It will not be easy. While both conservatives and liberals love our country and want what is best for our fellow citizens and posterity, we tend to differently prioritize the values underlying our moral calculus.
We are encouraged to fear that if the "other side" gets its way, it will be the end of life as we know it.
It sometimes seems to us that the other side is speaking a foreign language or is from another planet.
In conversation, we hear the opposing argument and identify the concerns behind it. Instead of acknowledging and validating those concerns, we immediately and subconsciously discount them, not because they are irrelevant, but because we feel other concerns are more compelling. We then launch into a counter-proposition and miss the opportunity to highlight our common ground and shared concerns.
It will take patience to elucidate our concerns, both shared and not. It will take more to sort out a compromise that advances the most important concerns which both sides can live with. It will take maturity to allow experimentation with policies that may not be our first choice but offer our best hope for the progress that is possible.
While remaining open to other possibilities and remaining true to our convictions, we need to build trust. When taking a position contrary to the ideals of a significant portion of our friends and neighbors, they must know we respect their views, even though they cannot be accommodated this time. Always with respect for law and the democratic process.
Considering the present state of our national discourse, this revolution seems most improbable.
However, for those of my age, the sudden fall of the Soviet Union once seemed unlikely. Who would have guessed in 1980, before we began decades of borrowing to pay for tax cuts, that we would now be $16.5 trillion in debt? That medical services would grow to consume almost 18 percent of our economic output?
Many unlikely events have transpired.
We need to build bridges and close the gaping cultural divide that has been ripping us apart since the 1960s.
The need is urgent, the time is ripe. If we cannot come together now, in time of relative peace and reasonable economic recovery, will we come together or come apart the next time we experience a crisis?
We share much more in common than divides us. Friend and foe alike are watching.
Will we rise to the occasion?
Tom Goergen lives in Aberdeen. Contact him at email@example.com.
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