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Gridlock Is Good

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Grab your partner do si do. The results are in. Bush turned the country to the left and Obama has now turned the country to the right. Feels like politics has become a square dance of discontent swinging to the right, to our left and then to our right seemingly not seriously dealing with any of the challenging issues facing the country. We all know the steps -- in political language the predictable spin -- of this dance.

Democrats, having maintained the Senate, claim the losses could have been worse, blame outside corrupting money for distorting Obama's accomplishments, and lament voter's ignorance of the facts and progressive's unrealistic expectations of the political process.

Republicans, triumphantly declare the people have given their thumbs down to the President's socialism and have affirmed Republican calls for patriotism in the form of limited government and no taxes.

Teabaggers, their anger transformed into power and funded by the likes of the Koch brothers, celebrate how regular Americans rose up in defense of the constitution to take back the country from elites and experts and warn the political establishment that they are now a force to be reckoned with.

Progressives, young people, and African Americans, who stayed home out of lack of enthusiasm, mourn the loss of the country to a reactionary right wing and blame Obama for compromises of principle that squandered his mandate and dispirited his base.

And of course the pundits on the right and the left, the former self-righteously counseling the President and his party to heed the clarion call of the people to work with Republicans to limit government, lower taxes, and free the market to do what free markets do while the latter bemoan the loss of power, engage in self-flagellation, internal bickering, and warn that Republicans will now gut everything from health care reform to regulatory reform from the safety net to civil liberties rolling back decades of social and economic progress.

Let's not forget our comedians, who as a recent study by the non-partisan Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University shows are increasingly becoming political pundits in drag with Leno and Fallon (NBC) favoring poking fun at liberals and Stewart and Cobert (Comedy Central) making fun of conservatives. Of course, we will all bemoan the partisanship and polarization of our political culture and just as surely will blame those with whom we disagree.

This all sounds rather bleak and tiresome. But what if the dreaded gridlock we seem to be mired in is actually the way we work through very complex issues that do not have immediate, simple, sweeping solutions -- no matter what our political ideologues say or how attractive such solutions might sound? What if gridlock is actually good when facing systemic, complex, and intricately interdependent problems? When it is easy because of how difficult it is to seduce the problems into promised land solutions that will transform everything -- even if they have unintended negative consequences? (In retrospect, wouldn't it have been better if we had some serious gridlock regarding going to war with Iraq? Rather than the almost unanimous agreement that "remaking the Middle East" and "bringing democracy to the region" was the only solution?)

In the days before the election, there were two seemingly contradictory polls that together might suggest something necessary and wise about what we the people are doing in our seemingly spasmodic moves from one side of the political divide to the other. According to a Gallup poll, only a third of the public thinks that members of either party have a clear plan for solving the country's problems. And there has been little change in the low confidence in Republicans since the 2008 election despite the Republican "resurgence" in this election -- while confidence in Democrats has diminished over the past two years. In other words, the vast majority of people in this country -- whomever they voted for -- have little confidence that either party is capable of addressing the problems we face. In the face of society defining challenges: a new economic reality, energy, climate change, immigration, education, health, unprecedented income inequality, the Muslim world... the only sane response is uncertainty. Anyone who claims to know for sure how to address these problems -- all of which require long term, structural, and life style altering policies -- possesses dangerous false confidence. Two-thirds of the voters know this while for some 15% of voters on each of the far ends of the political divide ideology organizes facts, drives policy, and creates the illusion of certainty. But for the rest of us there are no easy answers. Not surprisingly, this matches up with the rise of Independents who now outnumber those affiliated with the traditional parties. We ought to not be surprised that with politicians needing to depend on their ideological base for funding and votes increasingly independent voters wind up having to choose from politicians in whom we increasingly have no confidence. If there is one conclusion political leadership ought to take from this poll, especially those imagining their election as some triumphant moment of affirmation, it is humility at the complex task at hand.

The happy elected from Reid to Rand start their first day with close to 70% of Americans having no confidence in them.

Now, there was another set of polls that did not get attention in the media that also provides insight into the meaning of this election. In a Bloomberg poll, when asked "If Republicans win control of Congress what do you want to happen... the parties to stick to their principles... or work together even if it means compromising some principles?" 16% said stick to principles and 80% said work together. And in a CBS/NYT poll when asked, "what do you think Barack Obama should do -- compromise some of his positions in order to get things done or stick to his principles?" 22% said stick to his principles and 69% said compromise. In this same poll 72% said they thought Obama would try to work with Republicans while only 46% thought Republicans would wok with Obama. In other words, it is pretty clear a large majority of Americans have no confidence in political leaders to do what an equally large majority of Americans want -- to compromise principles to get things done.

Taken together these polls suggest we have gridlock because we really aren't sure how to address the serious problems we face and at the same time we wisely believe that solutions will only emerge out of new mixtures, blendings, bendings, and synergies of extremes: by locating and integrating in consciousness expanding and confounding, contradictory, and paradoxical ways the partial truths of Tea Bagger's fears of government and Progressive's hopes in government, of Republican and Democrat corporatist establishments, of free marketers and regulators, tax-cutters and tax-raisers, deficit hawks and stimulus supporters, amnesty activists and deportation advocates, social conservatives and social liberals, and all the other partial truths metastasizing in our polarized culture. Yes, we ought to try to be more civil as the Rally for Sanity urged but in all due respect to Jon Stewart -- and I am a fan -- we have had much worse division in our society from civil war to riots in the street. The unruly discourse with its fear mongering, name calling, and even occasional demonization is because the stakes really are high, our problems really serious and there are more voices than ever before vying to be heard -- no wonder there is so much yelling. We ought to be smart enough to know that fierceness is often a mask for some deeper insecurity and uncertainty. Gridlock may well be a wise and necessary brake on simple solutions. To offer an edit on Mr. Stewart's metaphor of seven lanes of traffic merging into one: what we really need which is far more difficult and ambitious than merging into one lane is to enlarge the tunnel.

Square dancing requires adjustment to changing partners as we move round and round. Maybe gridlock is the necessary space in which we need to learn to dance with different partners trying to understand how they move and how we can move best with them.

In response to this election, instead of gloating, mourning, blaming or warning perhaps we all need to ask ourselves what part of the critique of our most fiercely held positions just may be true and what part of the positions of those with whom we deeply disagree just may have some truth. After all, in serious debates differing sides often reflect, be it on an intellectual, emotional, or spiritual level, living truths or to paraphrase the physicist Neils Bohr the opposite of a profound truth is not a falsehood but another profound truth.

In the Biblical story of the Israelite journey through the desert to the promised land what was in geographical distance only a three month trek took forty years. The challenge to re-imagine a society in the midst of a profound transition -- to redefine the relationship between its vision and aspiration and its power arrangements, is always slower and more divisive than we expect. This is true of all the great advances in our society from suffrage to civil rights, from Social Security to Medicade to Medicare... But as we make this tortuous journey to promised lands, as we fiercely argue about the policy directions to take it would be good for every leader elected to remember every day that while they argue about directions millions of people are out of work, losing their homes, and giving up hope that they are part of the American dance.