As we have said before, empathy plays a critical role in politics. Nelson Mandela understood that. Mandela knew that politics is not mainly a cerebral sport. As Bill Keller explained in his Mandela write up, “[Politics] is a business of charm and flattery and symbolic gestures and eager listening and little favors. It is above all a business of empathy.”
We previously pointed out that the Obama administration’s lack of empathy with the Republican base over the country’s fiscal health and his insistence on unsustainable spending programs were the real barrier to reaching a fiscal compromise. The last “fiscal cliff” could have been averted had the President kept the deal he had reached with Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor. But again, the President’s lack of empathy with the legitimate fiscal concerns of others prevented him from cutting that deal.
A column by Daniel Coleman in Sunday’s New York Times addresses a fundamental problem of governing from the Tea Party’s or for that matter this President’s perspective. They simply don’t care about the getting things done and they suffer from a gap in empathy for those on the other side of the table. They would rather vilify one another than reach a compromise.
If the Tea Party interests really cared about putting the American fiscal house in order, the House would have passed a budget earlier this year. Alas, they haven’t passed an actual budget since 2007. Why? Because in order to pass a budget, you would have to compromise. On this point again, both the Obama administration and Tea Party Republicans are equally guilty. Compromise flies directly in the face of their sacrosanct missions to oppose each other at all costs.
This fierce partisanship has a source, and that source is a lack of empathy for opposing views. When candidates can virtually win their seat in the primary, they can continue to push to the right or to the left until partisanship is their ideology. This isn’t a new story, as Madison pointed out in Federalist #10: the powers of faction can destroy liberty. Today, with social media and the 24-hour news cycle, there are far too many actors on the stage and not enough workers in the field.
In Arizona, we have seen the fruits of thoughtful compromise: the 2010 budget which cut one billion in spending, the temporary sales tax initiative and the recently enacted Medicaid restoration are all great examples of doing what is necessary to govern, rather than vilify. Arizona’s fiscal health is better off today because of Governor Brewer’s unwavering commitment to getting the job done.
Is it time for a parliamentary system of government in our nation’s capitol? Most of America would have gladly cast a vote of “no confidence” which would permit Speaker Boehner and the President to form a new, more pragmatic government. Perish the thought, of course, but the problem we’re facing is real. Our system is now built for self serving partisan inspired gridlock.
As the New York Times article explains, “As political scientists have noted, redistricting and gerrymandering have led to the creation of more and more safe districts, in which elected officials don’t even have to encounter many voters from the rival party, much less empathize with them. Social distance makes it all the easier to focus on small differences between groups and to put a negative spin on the ways of others and a positive spin on our own.”
Both parties are fighting to tag the other as the “Party of No,” when reality is they’re both the parties of “no compromise.” Partisanship for the sake of individual electoral success in our dysfunctional two party system is killing the American dream.