The universal consensus in Washington these days is that our nation is heading toward a proverbial "fiscal cliff." Unless a bipartisan agreement of some sort is reached, the economic consequences appear to be dire. Unfortunately, I suspect that such an agreement will be even more difficult to reach than most people realize.
Earlier this year, House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer publicly accused Republicans of intentionally trying to harm the economy. Conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza made a parallel claim in his film 2016: Obama's America. From D'Souza's perspective, Obama is weakening this country, not as an unintentional consequence of misguided policies, but as an implicit goal. We now live in an era where half the country -- and it's always the other half -- is regarded as stupid and/or crazy and/or evil.
If that thesis is correct, if half (or even just 47 percent?) of our fellow citizens are beyond redemption, then this country is doomed. But I would argue that the thesis is incorrect, and that we're not doomed -- at least, not yet. But saving this nation demands a new approach to our politics.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was interviewed about House Speaker John Boehner's comments about spending cuts. "I don't understand his brain," Reid confessed. "You should ask him." When Boehner himself was questioned about the plan, he could only respond with "I don't know what they are thinking."
Statements like these make me bristle. As a celebrity ghostwriter, it is my job to help my clients express themselves clearly and coherently. The readers need not agree, but they need to understand how the celebrity thinks -- and for that to happen, it's my job to fully understand their thought process. I've worked with people as diverse as UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes (an intense born-again Christian, from a rural Illinois farmtown) to "King of Comedy" D. L. Hughley (a progressive firebrand, born and raised in South Central L.A.). What I discovered isn't that people have exceedingly diverse views -- but rather that virtually everyone regards their personal views as obvious. In other words, one's political stances are admittedly not the conclusion of logical thought, but allegedly stem from basic perception.
If one's views are "obvious," then the only opposition must be either blind to reality (i.e., "stupid"), not in touch with reality (i.e., "crazy"), or willfully denying truth (i.e., "evil"). Our crisis, therefore, is not one of economics or even of politics: it is a crisis of communication. We genuinely don't understand each other anymore.
When speaking to a class recently, I formulated a way for the students to understand this point. I call the problem "The Daedalus Dilemma." The Greek myth of Daedulus is a familiar one: Imprisoned in a labyrinth, Daedalus and his son Icarus strive for a means of escape. Clever Daedalus fashions makeshift wings out of feathers and wax. Departing for freedom, Daedulus warns Icarus not to fly too closely to the sun lest the wax melt. Icarus ignores his father's words and does precisely what he was warned against. His wings melt away, and he drowns while Daedalus flies to safety.
Now suppose Conrad the conservative and Porter the progressive, with full knowledge of the Daedulus myth, are locked in a labyrinth with wax and feathers. Let us also suppose that, like our politicians, the only way they can act is if both parties agree on a course of action. Porter immediately begins to fashion wings to further their escape. "What are you doing?" Conrad asks. "If we try to fly out of here, one of us will die."
"That's absurd," Porter replies. "We know what to avoid, so both of us will fly to safety."
"But Daedulus and Icarus knew what to avoid, and one of them died."
"It's simple: we won't repeat their mistakes. That's how progress works."
"If it were only that simple," points out Conrad, "Icarus himself wouldn't have done it. The mistakes of the past are warnings for the present."
"Fine," says Porter, exasperated. "But if we can't agree to leave, then you're condemning us to remain in prison! Inactivity is not an option."
"I'd rather be in prison," Conrad replies, "then dead. Sometimes the best choice is still a bad one."
Both men are arguing for what they regard as the obvious, best course of action. Both men, acting logically and truthfully, with access to the exact same data, have reached entirely opposing conclusions. And so we leave the conservative and the progressive, unable to understand each other, angry and frustrated, in a prison neither of their making nor of their own choosing -- but a prison nonetheless.