Editorial: Survival of the Collaborative

By The Beacon | February 24, 2016 5:08pm
Cartoon by Nathan DeVaughn

Amid rallies, debates, ads and polls, it’s clear that campaign season is well under way. Some people love the buzz of political jargon and thrive on passionate debate. Some people cringe when they see a campaign ad and run away from any discussion of politics. And while we would never encourage someone to run away from a constructive discussion of important topics, we understand their aversion to the current political climate. Politics sometimes seems inherently divisive. Social issues seem to split most people into two camps, waging war at the earliest signs of debate. But politics and social issues don’t have to be divisive and vitriolic: We control how we communicate and how we (as individuals and as a country) problem-solve. The cliche “survival of the fittest” does not apply to human beings, despite its misuse in debates about welfare or in support of capitalist individualism. We’ve never survived based on our individual fitness. We’ve survived based on our communal ability to collaborate. This rule applies to our individual lives as well as the larger political sphere in the United States. Our nation cannot survive without collaboration. We need to work together, but we’re continually divided. And that needs to stop. According to Pew Research Center U.S. Politics and Policy, the political ideologies of our nation are shifting and growing significantly more polarized over time. Polarization is happening on both sides. People on both sides of the political spectrum say that the “optimal political outcome” would be one in which their side gets more of what they want. But more people on the left prefer a leader that can compromise, whereas people on the right prefer a leader that holds firmly to their positions. When Barack Obama took office in 2012, rumors surfaced — and were confirmed — that several Republican senators made a pact to oppose anything Obama tried to pass during his presidency. Republican Senator George Voinovich is quoted saying, “If (Obama) was for it, we had to be against it.” Partisan antipathy makes our decision-makers less effective and problem-solving more difficult than it already is. The negative feelings engendered within this partisan context are actually more detrimental to our political processes than the deeply divided ideological differences according to Marc J. Hetherington, political science professor at Vanderbilt University. A disagreement on a political issue is easier to mediate than a disagreement rooted in the dislike of an individual. Not only are partisan politics counter-productive, but bipartisan politics (and diversity of opinion in general) fosters more informed individuals and more thoughtful decisions. A group of professors of management from across the country studied how political beliefs and attitudes toward opposing political beliefs influenced students’ communication styles. The study found that when students thought they were going to work with people who had similar political beliefs to themselves, they processed information less effectively than when they were told they would be working with someone with an opposing political viewpoint. Ultimately, the authors asserted that disagreement from a socially different person prompted others to work harder and prepare more thoroughly, that diversity of opinion encourages cognitive action more than homogeneity can. And while some candidates seem like polar opposites: such as Bernie Sanders, critiqued as a flaming-liberal socialist, and Donald Trump, called a hot-headed right-wing conservative, there are examples of successful bipartisanship. The U.S. political newspaper The Hill conducted a survey of the current Senate members on how their colleagues stood on bipartisanship. Survey respondents identified several sets of bipartisan besties: Ted Kennedy (D) and Orrin Hatch (R), Roger Wicker (R) and Ben Cardin (D), George Voinovich (R) and Tom Carper (D), and Sam Brownback (R) and Paul Wellstone (D). Even within our Supreme Court, the late Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were known for being friends from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Despite his extreme political views, Scalia was an enlightening member of the Supreme court. He and Ginsburg serve as an example of what it means to stand for mutual respect — and that’s precisely where bipartisanship must begin. So there are certainly some politicians willing to reach across the aisle to collaboratively solve our nation’s massive problems. But partisan politicians have no place in our nation’s decision-making process. Partisan politics and political extremes can be tempting, because they often incite the greatest passion. They make for great Saturday Night Live skits and sensational voter rallies. But they also result in political stagnation, and they tend to exclude and foster animosity and apathy. The energy some politicians spend demonizing the opposing political party could be better used in actually solving some of our nation’s problems. As we consider the 2016 presidential candidates, it’s important to consider the attitudes each person holds toward bipartisanship, who wastes time and energy dividing the nation and who bridges the gap between the left and the right. An effective leader will unite a country, not divide it. It’s time we stopped rewarding the politicians who seek the most media attention or who say the most provocative thing. Instead, let’s reward the politicians with the ability to unite people, to communicate inclusively and to collaborate effectively to create change.