The Grating Divide

CBS News recently reported that there is no longer a group we can consider as “moderate” in the U.S. Senate.  In a report on November 22, 2011 looking back on the past 40 years, Scott Pelley sourcing research from the nonpartisan National Journal noted that in 1982 there were 60 Senators who could be described as moderates, while today there is zero.

Zero moderates?

Two questions come to mind: 1) What criteria could we be using to define the concept of moderate that would rule out everyone in the Senate; and 2) If this is truly the case, how can this possibly be good for the nation?

If the essence of this analysis is that all Democrats are left of center and all Republicans are right of center, I suppose that would leave us with zero moderates.  Yet we all know this is not the case, the party labels of Democrat and Republican have largely become just that, where we all know Democrats we consider more conservative than some Republicans as well as some Republicans we consider more liberal than Democrats.  Clearly President Obama is receiving as much if not more criticism for the actual agenda he has pursued from vocal members within his own party for “not being liberal enough,” and the most significant criticism articulated about once leading Presidential Candidate Romney by numerous members of his own party is that he is too liberal.  Here we have a handful of labels that are useful to certain individuals on any given day for campaign positioning, high profile op-ed pieces, and extremely uncomfortable holiday table rhetoric, but beyond that, these labels aren’t doing us much good.

That doesn’t mean the divisiveness in our nation is any less real; it remains as the CBS News story implies a disease that is killing us.  The problem is that regardless of monolithic labels like moderate, liberal, and conservative — descriptors that tend to have almost no meaning in our day-to-day lives where business behavior and social interaction demand a level of civility and tolerance for anything to get done in a timely manner — our elected leaders at the national level have fully separated themselves from anything that vaguely represents the real world and isolated themselves in a war between two parties that does not reflect the desires, hopes, dreams, and aspirations of a people who really do wish to be united under visionary leadership.

The divide is on party vote, creating a climate where the mandate of political survival necessitates that whether in truth moderate, liberal, or conservative, an elected official still votes along party lines so as not to be perceived as a traitor to the party.  The party articulates a definitive point of view — whether that is no tax increase can be on the table or a tax increase of some sort must be on the table — and there you have it, intractable postures.  The result?  We still haven’t resolved the debt ceiling with intelligence, we are going to allow it to be done by mathematical computation.  If preordained formulas are going to be the measure by which critical decisions of how precious and limited resources are going to be allocated, one starts to wonder exactly what we are getting for the time and money of those being sent to our nation’s Capitol as voices of representative democracy.  We are willing to go to war with enemies overseas to advocate that democracy is the best possible ideal for self-determination of nations, yet at home we allow our own democracy to languish while our leaders fight among themselves for agendas of their own career advancement that are entirely irrelevant to the people paying their salaries and standing on the sidelines waiting to be rescued from stagnation.

Now while Congress fights (before it vacations again) over whether current extension of tax cuts and jobless benefits must be tied in a single package — another all or nothing argument that mirrors the failure of the Super Committee — millions of Americans are facing the end of year holidays in complete fear they could lose everything they have before they can get back on their feet because our government cannot do its job.  There can be no more excuses here — the needs of the nation must trump the needs of those who manage the nation, and those who will reap the lucrative benefits of post government service with lobbying jobs that continue to compromise the very fabric of fairness in practice.  Not much holiday spirit there, and no rhetoric makes things right when the bank forecloses.

I have written before that polarization is not only anathema to advancement, it is largely not tolerated in the business world.  Indeed a corporation is not a democracy, it is run by a CEO with executive authority that can be autocratic when necessary, but those of us in the working world know how seldom a successful CEO exercises that kind of power — the use of a blunt instrument is too often demoralizing to employees who thrive when they are empowered.  Is there career advancement at risk in a corporation?  You bet, every single day.  Are there winners and losers on a personal level, despite the fortunes of the company?  Yes, sometimes.  Do companies on occasion forget that competition is outside the walls of the enterprise rather than down the hall?  Oh yeah, happens all the time.  Yet to maintain one’s stature and upward mobility in working life, most of us come to realize the wisdom and benefit in building consensus viewpoints around difficult measures — and the more complicated the problem, the more upside there is to be found in working toward consensus.  Consensus is not the same as compromise, but it incorporates tactics of compromise to allow the best of ideas from different points of view to come together to form more enlightened arguments and better constructed resolutions.  The winning formula in consensus understands there is always a big picture, and in standoff bifurcation there is only momentum for standstill behavior.

Any organization frozen solid when facing a crisis is likely to fail.  Strong executives understand that this is often the difference between positive and negative earnings, and rather than worrying about getting their way on every detail because they so strongly believe it, they worry about obstructions to the organization’s success.  A leader articulates a vision, listens, is decisive, and then sees to it that anything blocking success is removed from the path, not cemented at the crossroads as a monument to unhelpful ideology.

There are any number of points of view on any number of critical issues facing our nation, but my sense is that real question before us is how we rediscover the commonalities that make us a great nation and not a divided people.  If we have no moderates in government that we have no one who represents the voice of the people, which by definition in its aggregate is moderate.  Dividing lines may help individual careers and fuel unlimited punch lines for the evening talk show hosts, but they aren’t helping you and they aren’t helping me.  If Washington can’t get over it, then we need to show them where they are wrong.  If our elected officials simply refuse to lead by example, then it is time for the rest of us to show them how.  There is a lot at risk here, way more than an election, way more than claimed vindication.  We cannot meet our challenges if we remain divided, not a chance.  We must find a consensus and a shared voice of which we can be proud.

Demand more, demand better.

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3 thoughts on “The Grating Divide

  1. Ken,
    Your article is wildly insightful. A pity if no one listens. I’ll add this; In ordinary times, pursuing electorate self interests is often good. Local constituents elect local officials to protect and promote local interests. Our democracy is based upon it. Today, however, our collective economic upheaval is national, and even international, in scope. These times require personal self sacrifice to satisfy national needs, but we are still operating under the principle of local self interest. That’s why studies show that while most of us dislike Congress, we still like our local representatives. Until we collectively recognize that our local self interests are damaging our national well-being, our government will remain deadlocked and our economic stability will remain in peril.
    Gene

    Like

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