Partisan Polarization: Enough Yet?

In the wake of the historic Senate party line vote on health care reform last week, the New York Times commented on the state of US politics over the last generation.  See:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/24/us/politics/24assess.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=partisan%20polarization&st=cse Political commentator David Herszenhorn recounts the increasingly rancorous divide that has characterized the political process.  Over the last thirty years, partisanship has become the goal of politics.  In describing the Senate vote Herszenhorn noted it to be:  “the culmination of more than a generation of partisan polarization of the American political system, and a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing.”  Never before in US history has such a fundamental shift in public policy been accomplished through strictly party line up or down voting.

The only surprise is that we should be surprised.  The inevitable and predictable outcome of positional “negotiation”  is escalation and heightened adversarial posturing.  When I choose to win at your expense, you have but one rational option:  compete back.  If you choose any other conflict response you have chosen to be exploited by me.  If we engage in a competitive death struggle collaboration is not an expected outcome.  The best we can hope for is a compromise which is in essence a stalemate achieved after we have neutralized each other’s power and settled for less than either of us would have desired.

Collaboration is a conflict strategy which flows from a vastly different source of power.  The power in collaboration is creativity and the increase in value to each participant.  Competition and its highest form of resolution (compromise) amount to a zero sum game in which the “pie is fixed” and the total value is simply distributed between us.  In contrast, collaboration enables us to create value and increases the likelihood that our mutual interests can both be realized by exploring options neither of us would have considered independently.  Collaboration cannot be achieved exclusively through competitive means.

Only time will tell if this latest example of ultimate competitive policy making will serve the interests of the public in the long-term.  When close to half of the positional constituents have been disenfranchised and branded as “losers” in the exchange the likelihood of satisfaction for most affected is slim.

Is it possible that like the George Clooney character in “Up in the Air” when we achieve the milestone of 10 million miles through denigrating the relational impact of our quest to win at all costs it will all seem empty?  Perhaps the time has come as a culture to begin to prepare for the post-modern world of collaborative policy making by acquiring a new and vastly different skill set.  When the resources are limited and the need is great only collaboration as a public policy strategy will generate additional value.  It is time to put partisan polarization behind us.

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