11/16/2010 09:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today's Politics of Invalidation

My brother, a lifelong liberal, is furious about the latest election. Republicans, he says, captured the House by demonizing Barack Obama with lies: portraying him as a socialist and blaming him for our crippled economy.

My brother could, of course, deal with his anger by demonizing conservatives. But that wouldn't encourage conservatives to be any more respectful of Obama or liberals in general. On the contrary, it would just escalate the hostility between political camps.

What, then, is the alternative? Perhaps a tactic that many negotiators use to change minds: It starts by your listening to the other person describe where they are coming from. You then convey to them that you understand what they want and why it matters to them. In effect, you "validate" them. The other person is then likely to be as receptive to hearing your side as he/she will ever be. And you have a clear picture of how to coax them to see your perspective. I've seen this approach work time after time: by businesspeople persuading disgruntled customers to stay; by crisis workers urging desperate callers to give up plans of suicide; and by wayward husbands convincing their betrayed wives not to leave them.

Yet politicians and political commentators often start out by telling people on the other side that they are wrong to want the things they want, in effect, invalidating them. Why? In that moment, a politician may not care about changing anyone's mind. He/she may be mainly interested in having the people who already agree with him tell him how right he is.

Other times, politicians invalidate their ideological opponents in order to court, in a few words, people on the fence. Some conservative politicians have, for instance, won over independent voters by painting liberals as un-American.

But politicians who invalidate large swaths of the American public are corroding our civic life. If that strategy becomes more common, most people who have accepted it will likely regret the society they've helped create.

Yet politics will always be a rough-and-tumble world. So, will validation ever be a practical strategy? It certainly could be, either one person talking to many or one on one.

Suppose, for instance, a liberal hears someone at a party advocate dismantling government programs that help the underprivileged. Here's one way the liberal can find common ground with the other person:

Liberal: Help me understand why you want to cut these programs.

Libertarian: I believe in freedom, most of all. When the government requires me to pay for someone else's welfare -- under threat of prison if I don't -- that strikes me as no different than for a hungry man to put a gun to my head and demand that I give him money to buy food. Anyone who puts a gun to my head is my enemy. Period.

Liberal: I can understand why you feel that way. I wouldn't ever want a gun put to my head either. Are there other reasons you object to government programs?

Libertarian: For sure. Government spends massive amounts of money with little to show for it. How often do politicians advocate measuring the costs and benefits of their pet programs compared to alternatives? How many government agencies monitor what works and what doesn't, and then own up to their mistakes? Sure every now and then, some inspector general exposes massive waste, but it's rare. And even then, politicians rarely stop funding dysfunctional programs.

Liberal: I agree that most politicians don't pay enough attention to costs. They often squander our tax dollars. I can understand why that makes you angry. But let me ask you: Aren't people who are hungry, uneducated and with little hope of a better life inherently a threat to a free society?

Libertarian: That doesn't give them or anyone else a right to demand my support.

Liberal: Okay, but as someone who loves freedom, doesn't it serve your cause to support first rate public education and other programs that give the disadvantaged a stake in preserving our freedoms?

Libertarian: If government could cost-effectively give everyone a good education and equip them with the tools to succeed in life, I might consider it. But cost-effective government is practically an oxymoron.

Liberal: So, if I understand you correctly, if there were ways for government to cost effectively give the underprivileged the opportunity to advance themselves, you could support that.

Libertarian: Let me be clear. That's not my first choice. It's a slippery slope for government to take on more than protecting our freedom, to do more than protecting us from those who would take our freedom away -- crooks and countries that would harm us. Where does it stop?

Liberal: Good question. To answer it, I need to ask you something: The government that you want to protect you, doesn't it consist of all citizens acting together?

Libertarian: In theory, but there should be severe limits on what any citizen can demand of others.

Liberal: Fair enough. But aren't you, in effect, wanting the 300 other million Americans to agree to protect your freedom as you define it?

Libertarian: I'm offering to reciprocate, to make my contribution in the defense of freedom.

Liberal: Okay, but most Americans apparently want the government to do more than you do. So if you believe in a free society, and you want other citizens to defend freedom as you define it, isn't your side obligated to negotiate with the other sides to reach a deal that they too feel meets their highest values?

Libertarian: That sounds like you're asking me to sign a blank check, that I and my fellow libertarians go along with whatever the mob demands.

Liberal: Not at all. I believe in your right to seek minimal government and maximum freedom. But if you believe in freedom, don't liberals have the right to seek and negotiate for what they want?

Libertarian: What if liberals demand more than I'm willing to give?

Liberal: You could walk away from the table.

Libertarian: You mean leave this country?

Liberal: Negotiation means you negotiate. If you believe in freedom, doesn't that mean you stick it out until the other side agrees to the bargain?

Libertarian: The bargain was struck over 200 years ago. It's called the Constitution.

Liberal: I know, but the preamble says its purpose is among other things to, "promote the general welfare." And the whole document is open to interpretation. One could even argue that the framers created Congress and the Supreme Court with the expectation that interpreting the Constitution was a process that would go on for as long as the republic existed.

Libertarian: That doesn't mean either Congress or the Supreme Court has a blank check.

Liberal: Agreed. But practically speaking, how do we resolve our differences over what the Constitution means if not by negotiation in Congress and deliberation in the courts?

Libertarian: Practically speaking, I suppose there is no alternative.

Liberal: So if I'm hearing you correctly, you're in favor of libertarians negotiating with everyone else over just how far government should go. And you would accept government doing more than putting crooks in jail and keeping foreign enemies at bay if there were rigorous accounting of costs and benefits?

Libertarian: Reluctantly. I'd still rather that government did not do more.

Liberal: Fine. I understand and accept that. I just ask that you grant that liberals have legitimate concerns, too. You and I will always disagree. But we can still find common ground.

If this dialogue is too touchy-feely for you, you can surely find your own way of accepting other perspectives. Either way, if you want to change minds, you need to understand those minds and validate them.

What if you fundamentally disagree with another person or find their values repugnant? Then you probably can't change their minds and there's little point in trying.

However, each of us often ascribe values to people we disagree with in a way that's not helpful. For instance, many people who are pro-choice often argue that pro-lifers want to impose their interpretation of the Bible on everyone else. Whether true or not, people who are pro-choice would have more success in working out their differences with pro-lifers by saying to them: "I understand that you believe that life begins at conception and therefore you see abortion as murder. If I were in your shoes, I would fight against abortion, too."

Notice that this doesn't constitute agreeing with the other person, just accepting where they're coming from. If you're pro-choice and say that to someone who is pro-life, I guarantee they are far more likely to hear your side of the story. And if they don't, they probably weren't going to hear your side no matter what you did. So, what have you lost?

What do you do if someone invalidates your political outlook? You can call them on it. If you're a liberal confronting an over-the-top conservative, you might say: If I'm hearing you correctly, you feel that your side alone has The Truth. People who disagree with you are somehow defective. You know, one of the principal authors of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, believed in very strong government. He was practically a monarchist. Meanwhile, James Wilson basically advocated all power to the people. In effect, the framers had political views all over the map, including many that you now disparage. And if even one-third of the framers had had the attitude that I seem to be hearing from you -- that their side alone possessed the truth -- we wouldn't have a Constitution today, and we wouldn't have the freedoms you value so highly.

What do you do when politicians and pundits on your own side of the political fence invalidate their opponents? You might consider calling them on that too.

Indeed if we want our politicians to stop assailing one another and start resolving America's gravest problems, we need to establish a political culture in which validation is the norm. That will take some doing, but it can be done, as described in an earlier blog.

That plan is clearly ambitious. But the alternative is to let our politicians keep on attacking one another, allowing our most serious problems to fester. We will all do far better -- liberals, conservatives and those in between -- if validation becomes standard practice in our political life.

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