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Declaring War on Cultural War

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Sixty-seven percent of likely U.S. voters say America is a more divided nation than it was four years ago... 7 percent think the country is less divided now. -- Rasmussen Reports 7/22/14

Warmongers -- that is what we have become. Cultural warmongers who choose partisan warfare over collaborative problem-solving. The border immigration crisis and threats and counter-threats about impeaching the President are but the latest news from the frontlines. The larger news is this: Both sides -- right and left -- have responded with nothing less than glee about how they will use these latest conflicts to raise money and rally their base. These culture warriors live the old adage from the military-industrial-complex era: War is our business and business is good. It is what happens when we worship at the altar of partisan hate. At a time when racial, ethnic and other forms of diversity are highly praised, political or religious differences are sources of contempt and attempts to silence the opposition. Can a country exhausted by the cost of war abroad, break its addiction to partisan warfare at home? The answer is yes, but first some background.

Ironically, as an advanced society that supposedly values diversity and freedom, we have returned to a simplistic, bygone era of black versus white: 'us' good guys wear white; 'them' bad guys wear black. If our side is for it, I support it. If their side is for it, I fight it. Once upon a time this was the domain of the uneducated, today it is the mode of some of our smartest, most informed and most visible. Accordingly, we suffer oppositional ignorance where our hatred blinds and dumbs-us-down. It stupefies us into childish polarizing stances like "I built it myself" vs. "you did not build it yourself." As the Godfather famously said, "Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment." Indeed it has.

Unfortunately, our growing cultural food fight is expanding. Last month's Pew Research reports that more than twice as many Republicans and Democrats express a "very unfavorable opinion" of the other party as they did two decades ago. Most argue the other side "poses a threat to the nation's well-being" yet fail to see their own partisanship as a threat. These more ideological partisans are a growing minority of each party and as Pew points out are driving politics because they are more engaged -- more likely to vote, campaign, donate money and contact their congressman.

As partisanship has become more narrow-minded and belligerent a growing group, repelled by the warfare, has disengaged. Defections from political parties has doubled in the past 50 years and independents according to Gallup now comprise 42 percent, the highest level in the history of their survey compared to registered democrats at 31 percent and republicans at 25 percent.

Something has happened to cause us to exaggerate our differences and join warring tribes. We are a society increasingly defined by the relationships we do not have, driven by the conflict of broken relationships that only proliferate. War is winning the battle for headlines and control - in a media world that prospers from real and manufactured conflict and drama. Yet according to Pew, a majority of us (56 percent) like leaders who are willing to compromise and want productive political relationships where things get done and the country's problems addressed. This majority -- silent perhaps -- is not ruling.

Moderates are losing out because small-group intensity trumps larger-group apathy. Moderates have little influence with extremists. Author Sam Harris describes it in terms of Islamists extremists, "moderates are viewed as nothing more than a failed fundamentalist." They are loathed and often bullied because compromise, bipartisanship and mutual respect are seen as weak, unprincipled, and without conviction. Would we tolerate an Abraham Lincoln in today's cultural wars?

The upcoming 2014 congressional elections and the 2016 Presidential/congressional elections are a time of opportunity. The majority in this country are tired of cultural warfare. The vocal minority may be ruling but they have failed at governing. Sometimes war is necessary but it is always destructive and never sustainable.

It is time to ask the question: Do the candidates that I support regardless of their ideological views operate out of a paradigm of division and war. No matter how I might value their views, will they likely to lead their side and then their opposition to more pushing and shoving, but no sustained actions or progress. Led by warmongers, the nation gets not "half a loaf" but goes without bread and with much carnage.

We get the branding exactly backward. We say moderates stand for nothing and that extreme partisans stand on principle. Yet in reality the war model of extreme partisans is divisive, destructive and impotent to get substantive, sustainable things done. Leadership is about bringing people together and getting the best outcome possible from and for diverse stakeholders. We say Washington is broken but in reality our country is broken until we decide that we love what unites us more than we hate what divides us. A recent University of North Carolina study found that collaborative leadership, building strong teams, and change leadership are three of the five most important talents corporations seek in future leaders. What if those criteria drove our selection of political leaders?

This focus doesn't mean leaving our principles at the door, rather it means elevating the principle of working collaboratively, where our differences and diversity are a strength waiting to be tapped. It is the very essence of democracy, marriage, business, team sports or any other union where give-and-take and respecting differences is required to get the best solution possible. Leaders connect people. They enlarge purpose and diminish ego and arrogance in a way that brings people together for shared engagement and outcomes.

It is time to stand on a higher principle -- the principle of productive relationships -- engaging and collaborating with all sides to get principled things done. Go find and support the candidates that place this principle at the top of the list. Vote for multiplication, not division; make love, not war.