THE BLOG

What's a Citizen to Do?

10/02/2013 12:42 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

When I came to my work in conflict resolution 20-plus years ago, I imagined a day when our legislative bodies would use more win-win approaches to problem-solving than had been the practice to that point. I saw it as the inevitable next step in a maturing democracy, an innovation in governance that would allow us to make our democracy more efficient, effective and enduring.

The true strength of using consensus-building approaches to problem-solving is that it solves problems while strengthening relationships, something essential for any group who must work together over time, tackling one issue or problem after another. Each problem well-resolved strengthens a group for the next challenge to be faced, building capacity, confidence and nurturing a sense of community that binds people to each other and to the their common purpose -- service to a greater good.

I imagined this evolution of democratic practice inevitable, as more and more people understood the power of principled negotiation, seeking solutions that allow mutual gain, optimizing outcomes for all parties involved and looking for synergies that reveal themselves only when working together. Need less to say, I am disappointed -- not merely at our failure to see this better way that is right in front of us, but at the dramatic devolution of discourse where policies and laws are made. The bold and unapologetic display of ignorance, arrogance and irresponsibility on display in Washington is breathtaking and heart wrenching. And I don't understand the lack of outrage or our failure to translate that outrage into action.

I teach that there are only two conditions under which enlightened approach to negotiation or problem-solving are not possible. It is important to know when these conditions exist because it should inform your strategic choices when dealing with such folks. These are: 1) when the other party doesn't want the problem to be solved (i.e., when their very identity is tied to keeping the fight ongoing); and 2) when their definition of "winning" includes the other party "losing" (i.e., they seek to inflict harm or deny any satisfaction to the other). If either of these circumstances exists, a collaborative approach to problem solving is doomed to fail. I perceive both of these conditions to be at play in Washington and in many state legislatures right now. When these conditions apply, you have only two strategic choices -- to cave or to crush them.

Reason would dictate that anyone who accepts a position on a team should advance their goals within the rules of the game. Mr. Peron, my 8th grade civics teacher, taught me that to be on the team in Washington should mean that passion, disciplined with reason, is the common currency of discourse. It should also means that you agree to address our countries problems working in good faith with others sent by their constituents to do the same. It should mean engaging the issues in a way that illuminates the challenges and seeks to resolve them in the most synergistic and sustainable way. It should mean that you work to achieve broad consensus while building strong relationships, since consensus is the glue that holds us together and relationships are the grease that makes joint effort possible. It should mean that common interest trumps special interest. And it should mean that beyond any single issue in play, all are committed to strengthening and sustaining the institutions, traditions and the practices that allow us to work together to get work done. (But then, we don't much teach civics anymore!)

In my assessment, several legislators recently invited onto Team Democracy have proved themselves unworthy of the privilege bestowed upon them by their election. All indications are that they have come to destroy the stadium in which the game of collective self-governance is played. For them, self-interest and special interest trump collective interest. They live for the fight, are willing to win my any means and define success as destruction, not just those they oppose but destruction of the institutions through which we govern.

In spite of my use of metaphor, this is not a game. This impacts our lives, defines our future and risks our legacy. Issues and politicians will come and go but the institutions by which we engage must endure. I like to say, "Conflict is an opportunity for positive change." This experience of failed leadership can be just such an opportunity. It could strengthen our resolve, clarify our expectations of those who govern, commit us all to sustained civic engagement and convict us that only those who want to play responsibly get a chance to play at all.