Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Diagnosing Democracy

Sam walked into the doctor's office complaining. "I'm not feeling so well. I feel torn. I am of two minds and am unable to decide which actions to take. This indecision has me in a state of gridlock. I couldn't balance my budget, resulting in a big hit to my credit score. I couldn't hold my tongue and find myself calling people who disagree with me crazy or ignorant or liars. I know I have to make some big changes to my life, but I just can't decide how to move forward. What's wrong with me, doc?"

The Institute for Emerging Issues asked me to come and diagnose Sam, also known as American democracy, at the Redesigning Democracy Summit.

After looking at her chart, I have come to the conclusion that the syndrome causing Sam's problem stem from a longstanding, untreated case of political segregation. Moralized migration patterns where liberals are moving to liberal enclaves and conservatives are moving to conservative enclaves lead to political segregation. People on the left literally have less contact with people on the right; and, people on the right literally have less contact with people on the right. When people do not have contact with members of other groups, it becomes much easier to think ill of them. As former Representative Jim Leach (R-IA) said, "it's a whole lot easier to call someone a dumb liar if you know you don't have to face that person's family over the dinner table later that day." With this political segregation, the norms of politeness and respect change, and may even be irrelevant for dealing with people of divergent political perspectives. So, politicos now face little repercussions for calling someone a liar, a fascist, a communist, or, in some cases, "the Anti-Christ." In some cases, this disrespect may benefit them and provide a boost to their fundraising.

Further complicating political segregation is that liberals and conservatives now live in communities that are very different from one another and face different problems. These different communities create different social realities for their inhabitants. For example, people living in more conservative rural farming towns have a dramatically different experience of the current economic downtown than people living in more liberal urban manufacturing cities. These diverse places suffer in unique ways and demand different remedies to their economic hardships. People in farming communities are unlikely to need extensions of unemployment benefits, as unemployment has not increased as much in these communities. Rather, they may need subsidies or tax breaks to help them cover the increased cost of fuel for the equipment on their farms. In contrast, urban liberals are unlikely to desire, or even see the relevance of, giving tax breaks to farmers in this time of economic turmoil. Rather, they may desire extensions of unemployment benefits to help people survive while they acquire skills needed for jobs of the future. Anyone advocating for one of these programs will be seen in a positive light by one of these communities and out-of-touch by the other community. Thus, it is no surprise that representatives of these communities cannot compromise to address the country's economic problems.

So, my diagnosis is that our political segregation is giving way to the growing incivility and partisan gridlock in America. It is natural for people to want to be around others who share their values, but if we are to address our most pressing issues and move America forward, we need to step outside of our comfort zone. You may not know many people who hold different values, but if you do, try talking with them with an open-mind; try to understand them, rather than just trying to persuade them to agree with you. Through this, you just might make a new friend who will help you to better understand the world around you. Oh, and over time, this may give way to a more pleasant America where people can disagree without demonizing each other, and where our government is less prone to gridlock.

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