The United States is in the middle of a historic avalanche of change while navigating an unprecedented landscape of political and ideological conflict. The acrimony and impact on individual moods grow daily. I have become resigned to pundits shouting at each other, uncivil discourse and a governance process that has brought our most important institutions into gridlock. You and I are daily witnesses the ugliest and most disgusting expressions of our body politic.
The ‘bottom line’ I hear most often is, “This polarization in Washington and in our Country is all about power – just power for the sake of power”. Until recently, I would agree and be numbed into yet another spectator conversation about ‘ain’t it awful;’ Today I read an editorial by David Brooks in the New York Times.
He rightly focuses on the fact that the issue is no longer about which side of the divide you are on or which narrative you embrace, it is about how to recover a National identity and embrace a common perspective large enough to resolve our differences or at least allow us to get along given our differences.
What this provoked in me was a question. What is the problem that power is the solution for?
In a word, I think it is Relationship.
Without sufficient relationship I will automatically blame, distrust, generalize, demonize and eventually declare the ‘other’ as an enemy. The obvious, perhaps only, strategy for navigating in a world of enemies is to have the power to defend and eventually to destroy. When families or nations are polarized, this looks like “War of the Roses” or “Game of Thrones”. In a marriage, it resembles “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.
As in these plays, the inevitable and final outcome is a tragedy.
Just as in a failing marriage or any breakdown in relationship, the choice is to continue to define my ‘space’ —whether a physical space, a political space, a psychological space or an ideological space; OR I can commit myself to do whatever it takes to live in some harmony, recognizing that people are different but also the same. You and I are separate and also always connected.
I can commit but can only fulfill my commitments in a relationship with other people.
When I have a breakdown or disruption the first thing that gets called into question is the relationship. I have an almost innate and automatic ‘blame’ reflex. Here are some things that I am learning need to be addressed to repair damaged relationships and build sustainable practices for sustaining civil, respectful relationships capable of co-creating a future that can include others.
- I need to accept and acknowledge the ‘other’s’ autonomy and choice to believe whatever they want. I must grant that you have a right to exist and a right to your views and that we are equals. Each having the freedom to BE and freedom of THOUGHT.
I also need to accept and acknowledge my interconnection with you and that I am part of a ‘whole’ whether marriage, family, organization, community, nation-society or civilization.
- I must declare my responsibility for my relationships in the world. I don’t usually have much choice about what happens or who is in my life, but I always have a choice in how I relate to what happens and to other people.
- I must accept and commit to the facts of the relationship. Is not being in a relationship an option? Am I related, like it or not? Do I want it to ‘work’? Without a mutual commitment to make it work, there can be no political process for resolution of differences. Winning through the exercise of power is the only other option. The question is whether the exercise of power strengthens or weakens the relationship. The weaker the relationship the more destructive and ineffective will be the exercise of power.
- Do I accept some givens or boundaries within which I will design my relationships and go about the business of living with others on a day-to-day basis? For example, do you and I accept the rule of law? Do you and I agree to what sources of information we’ll mutually trust? Who do I accept as having the authority to arbitrate disagreements if necessary?
- Is there a structure or forum or platform within which to meet, communicate and learn from each other? This is the kind of question that our Constitution offers to resolve, however, the mechanisms for being connected and in the conversation must be dynamic and evolve with the relationship. Our institutional structures are currently under threat of becoming so ‘politicized’ that they can lose their value and ability to resolve conflicts and even be co-opted by the systems they were created to serve. For example, it is not uncommon in developing or highly controlled societies for the judiciary and media to be dominated by one party or one point-of-view. When this occurs, the whole society falls into a self-referential trap in which meaningful change rarely happens, most people are resigned, and short of revolution, the primary strategy for survival becomes criminality – black markets, insurgency, civil dissent.
The issue of commitment to a relationship comes to a head, however when beliefs, needs or values are in direct opposition to each other —issues such as abortion, scarce resources, equality of people of different races, gender, sexual orientation and so forth, along with a host of other seeming irreconcilable differences. In these instances, power will always be a factor which is one reason why politics will and should exist in some form to balance our differences and enable our choices within a context of a relationship.
If you and I don’t trust, respect and consider our differences are the raw material for coming together, not the reasons for being separate, we will continue to compete for power to dominate the ‘other’ and this story will inevitably end in tragedy.