Most people who have been married for a long time know that there are hot button topics and “off limits” conversations that do nothing but spark conflict—and rarely lead to resolution. Imagine if you and your spouse had an agreement that you would open up those conversations every four years; and the arguments would go on for about a year. I bet you think the marriage would be over quick right?
Marriage therapists are very familiar with couples who get in to the “have it out” phase of conflict—and remarkably these couples can stay in that phase for a long period of time before they burn out and simply stop talking all together. And phases of disgruntled avoidance and stagnation can go on for even longer.
What causes people to “have it out” and say things that are as hurtful as possible? It happens when people feel threatened and backed into a corner and so they lash out. The results are rarely good. Breaking out of this cycle is very difficult. It takes a lot of maturity and compassion to be able to rise above the acrimony of an out-of-control argument.
Which brings me to the presidential election: Why do we feel the need to engage in this cultural ritual of divisiveness and rancor as a method for choosing our temporary leadership? Why do all elections devolve into spin and allegation as opposed to thoughtful, deliberative debate about what is possible if we work together?
Just like in marriage; arguments start when people are unhappy and anxious. Recent Gallup poll results show that 75% of Americans are not happy with the direction and progress of the country; particularly the economy. No surprise that number is even higher for Republicans. We are dissatisfied, and we are anxious. Anxiety is skyrocketing. NBC reports surveys showing a 1200% increase in anxiety diagnoses over the past 30 years; 117 million American report clinical levels of anxiety.
In this kind of environment a few negative ads is all it take to push people over the top and get them to move into a fortified intractable dogmatic position. This is where an argument moves from a debate to a form of Jihad. This is what happens when we talk about gun control to an avid NRA member with the 2nd amendment tattooed on their arm; the discourse quickly moves to “prying my dead fingers from my gun”; same for abortion, gay rights, the environment, Wall Street greed, etc.
This zealotry is understandable, but not functional. In our book Evolutionaries, former Navy SEAL Commodore Steve Ahlberg offers a number of great ideas for helping people with differing visions work together. According to Ahlberg, getting people to work together is “simple but not easy.”
How this all applies to Political Discourse
For example, I honestly believe that if we allowed Barack and Mitt to sit down and work together with the mandate that they craft a unified vision and action plan for the next four years that used all available resources to manage the big issues facing America, namely jobs and health care, they would work very well together. I mean I literally want them to lock themselves away for a week and figure things out. They could then leverage the complementary visions of the Republicans and Democrats to meet the real world challenges of refreshing our economy for the 21st century. Simple, right? But it is anything but easy.
We are not demanding that level of discourse and development from our politicians. We are caught in a spiral of zero-sum, you win-I lose politics that does nothing but establish the battle lines for the next spiral of extremist positioning and vilification. We see this “have it out” ritual as normal. The sad result is that the only thing we have achieved are fortified camps of intractable, reductionist, nay-sayers who find success in the argument, not the solution.
But make no mistake, there is a solution, and it is pretty simple (but not easy).
The Political Discourse Solution
My solution is to tease out a very important distinction in political discourse (and it turns out, marital too). Dr. Julia Wood from the University of North Carolina describes stages of communication and conflict in a relationship as falling into one of two camps; differentiation and disintegration. When couples enter into “differentiating” conversation, they are calling out differences to one another. It can sound a little like an argument. “You always want to go out for Chinese food, why can’t we try something different? Let’s try the new Italian place.” When two people identify points of differentiation they are providing important visibility into their likes, needs, and wants. Bottom line, differentiation is normal and can be very healthy.
Disintegration, on the other hand, is just what it implies; an effort to dis-integrate from the relationship culture they have built together. Look for categorical statements, name calling, and strong emotional words. “You are so lazy and sloppy; you have never wanted to make this a nice place to live.” Disintegration is a destructive force. It is designed to shatter the underpinnings of the relationship.
When we listen to political discourse, we need to simply classify what we are hearing as differentiation, “We would fund Medicare this way; they would fund Medicare that way…” or disintegration; “Death panels! They hate old people! They are not Americans!”
If it is disintegration, it is by definition toxic, not helpful, and inaccurate. Differentiation on the other hand can allow you to see important distinctions in approach, vision, values, reasoning, and strategy. It is simply an easy filter that allows you to participate in the real political discourse, not the fake one.
Philosopher Eric Hoffer said “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” When we hear political discourse that strikes us as rude; it is just that, an imitation of strength. When we as an electorate recognize this important distinction we can allow our leaders to work together, on our behalf. We can leverage their differences in approach and tactics. We can open up the opportunity for more of our talents to thrive in the cause of building a better world. It is not about making peace between Republicans and Democrats; it is about seeing their differences as a part of a greater vision of what it means to be American. It is our gift to the world that we can see differences as strengths.
We can also work to build better relationships and families.
OK, tonight we have Italian…