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102. Not every issue needs a battle October 27, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Culture and Communication.

Like many people living in the USA right now, I can’t wait for the election season to end because at least the volume of political battles decreases. But the battles continue via our elected representatives, who seem to believe that holding an opinion firmly and never letting go is more important than governing wisely.

Politics has perhaps never really been about governing wisely as much as it has been about grappling to be the one with the power to decide. In my first (and only) serious foray into party politics at age 18, I was disillusioned to learn that the party leaders backing my candidate were setting up a slate of delegates that we all needed to vote for. One of my friends who was very interested in being a delegate was only offered the possibility to be an alternate on the slate. The party was managing the votes strategically and didn’t want any deviations from the slate that had been set up in a hotel room (almost certainly smoke-filled in that era) by a few players. We were just the troops brought in to support that strategy. The strategy failed and the party’s candidate lost.

While I understood the strategy and why is was necessary — the other side was doing it, too — this isn’t the way I wanted to believe that representative government worked. I had had the idea that conventions and Congress provided places where people would come together to talk about what would be best for the country, and that those with the best ideas would be heard by all present who would then join forces to implement those ideas. Of course, it’s been years since I had any expectation that legislators would search together for common solutions and policies. Even mission-driven, volunteer boards can be driven apart by political fighting.

When I think about the skills needed for building relationships across cultures, one is certainly the ability to move beyond polarized, defensive postures that draw sharp lines between “us” and “them.” These skills involve listening, suspending judgment, respect for others, and not holding too firmly to your own beliefs. I still hope for a world where leaders have these skills and the desire to work for peace: across nations, across cultures, and across political parties. It’s not about always agreeing, but about always thinking and always engaging others in that journey.

This may not feel like a very strong position from which to campaign in an election, of course. We probably like to support policies that seem simple to understand, and we probably chose candidates for reasons that don’t involve as much study or insight into the issues as we’d hope to do. I always want to select someone for president who seems to be smarter than I am, since I know I couldn’t begin to take on that job…not that I’d want to.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times gave me some insight on why radical political solutions seem insufficient to me: I cannot explain how they work, and the more I study them the less I feel the policy seems to accomplish what it is supposed to. Probably no one political action will produce remarkable changes, but change happens nevertheless, much totally out of the control of the US President or Congress. As one voter interviewed on the television noted, “We will all have to do the best we can.”