Bipartisan Partisanship: The Missing Link

When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge. Confucius

We can’t know what we don’t know.  Acknowledging that we might not know it is the beginning of wisdom.

Have you listened to dialogue carefully since last Tuesday’s elections?  Two things emerge.  The public is tired of partisan wrangling and duality policy making (“Its our turn to be right”).  Those in power (newly or otherwise) maintain they have a mandate to work the problems out “their way”.  This either/or approach to public policy is exactly what the public has lost trust in.  There is a missing link.

The missing element in the dialogue is as simple as the old Southern question: “Do you have a dog in the hunt?”  If so, will the public trust you to be an honest broker?  The cry for bipartisan partisanship is an oxymoron.  Will the new sheriff in town be any less likely to promote her self-interest than the sheriff that preceded her?  The partisanship trap is thinking that my win looks better than your win.  That’s win/lose thinking without end.

The missing link or the puzzle piece that remains to be discovered is how to bridge the opposing poles and discover a truly non-partisan solution.  By definition, “bi-partisan” retains the partisan character of the win/lose struggle for supremacy.  In contrast, non-partisan public policy sheds the dual win/lose struggle in exchange for a new approach, one in which opposing polarities are forged into a new reality which is superior to either polarity alone.

Why is it so difficult to discover the missing link?  Because our lenses are focused only on our own preferred positions and unable to see the values in the positions others hold.  Our positional certainty has blinded to truths other than our own.  Do we actually believe we alone hold the truth tightly and no one else can see it differently?  Of course not (if we’re honest).  However, our positional certainty precludes us from seeing truth as others see it.  (See:  Confronting Erroneous Thinking:  A Lost Art)

What the current call for bipartisanship fails to know is that once we have attained positional certainty we have reached the point where we are physiologically unable to step back from the precipice.  Neuroscience assures us that positional certainty will only become more entrenched when challenged.  The classic model describing five levels of conflict illustrates that when conflict rises to the intergroup level, the groups are unable to resolve their problems without outside assistance.  (See e.g. Nancy Borkowski, Organizational Behavior in Health Care.)  If we have problems with each other that we can’t solve together, I am highly unlikely to trust you to solve them for me.  That’s capitulation and another form of win/lose strategy.

The current public disgust and distrust of partisanship should lead the parties in conflict to welcome the assistance of outside, impartial (no dog in the hunt) facilitation.  Our cities, our states and our nation enjoy the benefit of thousands of professionals trained in the skills of assisting parties in conflict reach acceptable/acceptable outcomes.  Public policy can become a far more satisfying search for the common good than choosing between the two polar extremes.  Compromise is not necessary.  Creative collaboration can generate extremely satisfactory results in a non-hierarchical way.  (See, Mass Collaboration:  Will Management Really Die?)

However, under the current political thinking this is a most unlikely outcome.  Until the “pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same” we will stay the course and maintain our win/lose mentality.  Wouldn’t our pursuit of the public good be better served by acknowledging that we don’t know how to coerce our way to a better outcome?  Shouldn’t we welcome the assistance of impartial facilitation as a new tool for achieving satisfactory public policy?

Make no mistake, some issues are and will always remain highly partisan.  However, even the politicians indicate that the range of uncompromisable issues is as little as 10% of the matters that come before the administrative and legislative branches.  Furthermore, there is a great middle ground of matters that require only the application of majority rule leadership as a matter of good governance.  Where the difficulty lies is the band of issues outside the obvious common good and just short of the uncompromisable concerns that the special interests will attempt to pull the politicians into partisan positions in order to build support for their cause.  It is this 20 to 30% of public policy matters that the special interests must be enticed into dialog with their adversaries to illuminate the path to better outcomes.

The public waits and patience is running out.  The missing link is ready, willing and able to serve.  Is anyone listening?

If not, the next election cycle could result in yet another round of “out with the bums”.  Makes you kind of dizzy doesn’t it?  Responding to public cries for Statesmanship with even more strident brinkmanship clearly is not working for those who elect the representatives they expect more from than just a different version of the same ole thing.

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