By Mel Schwartz and Jesse Schwartz

The partisan gridlock engulfing the United States is arguably the greatest challenge to the nation’s political and economic viability. It renders our federal government incoherent, incompetent, and reviled – and with varying interpretations as to which party won a mandate earlier this month, the yawning gap between Democrats and Republicans does not appear to be abating. A litany of voices has cried out that we must overcome this partisan deadlock at once, but few offer any constructive insight as to how.

Understanding the nature of partisanship is a necessary first step to avoid its pitfalls. Politicians are partisan because, by nature, people are partisan. In fact, we elect certain politicians because their biases confirm our own. Yet when our politicians become obstructionist due to that partisanship, our government grinds to a frightful halt.

As humans, we construct reality by seeing things through opposites. For example, without the notion of good, there is no concept of bad. If night never fell, we would not have the word day, as it would have no meaning. The mind organizes information by contrasting opposing sides: war vs. peace, evolution vs. creationism, pro-life vs. pro-choice, socialism vs. capitalism, etc.

One rejoices in their liberalism by seeing the wrong mindedness of conservatism, and vice versa. Our identities are constructed and reinforced through this type of cognition. I know myself by seeing the opposite of myself. Nowhere is this truer than in our political beliefs. If I see myself as right, and you have an opposing belief, you must be wrong. It’s precisely therein that partisanship becomes dysfunctional. There are no shades of grey, simply black or white. Beginning to look precisely like Congress?

The problem becomes even more acute as our political system divvies up likeminded members of Congress into two warring parties, each furthering their identity by opposing the other’s policies. The greater the divide, the more distinct each party becomes. This dysfunctional dance, which makes for ineffectual governance, is due to the antagonistic nature of entrenched party-line thinking. Complexity is avoided as we oversimplify and thus stymie innovative thinking. 

Instead, imagine a situation in which a pro-choice advocate decides that, before protesting the sexism of pro-lifers (an exercise in simplicity), she first searches for a part of the opposition’s stance with which she might actually concur. It’s not difficult to empathize with the ethical struggle of aborting a fetus’ life. Acknowledging as much is a critical first step in validating the feelings of pro-lifers. She might also agree that life begins at conception yet nevertheless still support a woman’s right to choose. By affirming at least a portion of the other’s perspective, we are no longer mired in the construct of right or wrong but in gradations and preferences. Battle lines blur, beliefs are not instantaneously invalidated, and the political ground begins to shift.

The essence of the problem is that our politicians are unfamiliar with the concept of genuine dialogue. Conversation is not dialogue. Dialogue, from the Greek dia and logos, suggests flow of meaning. In learning to get past the Ping-Pong match of right and wrong that so paralyzes our political system, politicians must move beyond status quo discourse and invite dialogue, which embraces complexity and dissonance yet seeks a shared understanding. This approach requires a temporary suspending of your position so as to better appreciate another’s. It doesn’t suggest that you abandon your belief, simply that you put it aside momentarily to appreciate your adversary’s view. When both parties participate in this process, intransigent positions make way and previously unexpressed interests come to the forefront. This opens the path for convergence and new solutions.

Unless one party controls all three branches of the government, stubborn partisanship leads to inertia, and the public is damned for it. Just like in a relationship, listening and validating how the other party thinks and feels shifts the energy from partisan toward collaborative. Values and principles are not subordinated through dialogue. Rather, this form of engagement enables each side to take a step toward the other and restore the vitality of our governing process.

Thomas Jefferson, hardly an individual lacking in earnest convictions, once proclaimed, “I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument.” With congressional bickering and senate filibustering at an all time high, it’s time our elected officials heed his words. When partisanship trumps effective governing at the cost of stalemate, everyone loses.

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