Stop the Fighting. Start Collaborating!

Here in my current home state of Virginia, the primary elections are taking place today. For that reason, I thought it quite fitting to think about the failure of teamwork and collaboration that is occurring in the political realm today (uplifting isn’t it?).

In a piece posted on the Huffington Post written during the most recent government shutdown (October 2013), Robert C. Crosby makes the following statement, “[I]n order to succeed in today’s world there is a new skill needed. It is proving true in every sector of society, financial, educational, military and ecclesial. With sharpened skills of collaboration, you and your organization will be at a significant advantage. Without it, you will be limited. Ironically, at present, the 600 or so people we have elected to lead us in Washington are proving sorely deficient in what should be a primary characteristic of statesmen. Is there anyone left in Washington who knows how to or is willing to …Collaborate?” As a teamwork researcher and organizational consultant I very much appreciate this scathing rebuke. As a former political worker, I am embarrassed.

In the spirit of my proposition for increased collaboration, I have asked one of my dearest friends in the world and I man I often clash with over ideas, Rob Abb to join me in today’s post. Rob is a 2009 graduate of the political science program at the University of Michigan, a 2012 graduate of the Juris Doctorate program at Wake Forest University, and currently serves as an associate for a law firm in Detroit, MI. Rob is in many ways my younger brother and we share a passion for many topics, though admittedly we disagree on perspectives. We, however, have found the ability to have discussion and even find middle ground without spewing vitriol towards each other.

(Todd) So when it comes to the topic of collaboration, the situation is quite bleak. We have created a political landscape today in which fighting is the only answer. Political districts are gerrymandered so as to create safe seats, and as a result the need for conversation between ideologies seems to be diminished. We see politicians whose “war chests” are so big that they no longer answer to common sense, but only protect their personal interests. Our pundits also feed the “beast” as they hammer at anything that smacks of going against their status quo, as doing so drives up their ratings.

Folks, can we help stop this? Can we please talk to real people who have differing perspectives than ours, and do so calmly? Can we educate ourselves on ideas that don’t fit our own political framework? Can we stop demonizing the opposition? Could we actually seek to elect people who want to work for a more collaborative environment in politics and have proven themselves reliable in this regard? And frankly can we move to squash the power of the political parties and special interest groups in playing kingmakers through their monetary gifts, political favors, and advertising agendas and just let real people lead in collaboration?

I for one believe that it is possible for collaboration to return to politics (even within parties it seems rare anymore). I believe it starts with us turning down the volume on our TVs, radios, and internet sites when they demonize anything that doesn’t fit their agenda. Let’s return to the public square. Let’s encourage discourse (rather than squashing it). Please. It isn’t too late!

(Rob) First, let me start off by saying that I actually agree with most of what you just said. Our current political system is broken.  Our elected leaders no longer have any real incentive to put aside ideological differences, communicate and work together. In fact, for many of them, choosing to walk across the aisle and work with someone or support an idea from the “other party” is about the most dangerous thing they can do, from a political standpoint. Most House Republicans, for example, cannot even consider supporting anything with the President’s name on it. And if you think I’m exaggerating, go back and look up what many in the party said about Gov. Christie when he praised the President’s efforts and worked with him on something as controversial as disaster relief. You did not see the same reaction from Democrats about the President working with a Republican governor.

Where Todd and I really disagree is as to who is responsible for this mess.  While there is considerable blame to go around, it should not be equally divided.  The old “they’re all crooks” attack is far too simplistic. That is to say, although both parties are rife with corruption and incompetence, the policies and laws that created the systemic failures of our electoral system are not bipartisan. While Democrats (starting mostly with Bill Clinton) have learned how to play by the new rules and exploit our election laws as well as (and sometimes better than) Republicans, the underlying causes of systemic failure in our electoral system that have reduced our elections to simple ebay-eque bidding wars, continue to be advocated for and championed by conservatives and conservative ideology.

In the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, over vehement objection from the 4 liberal justices, the 5 conservative members of the Court struck down some of the few remaining bastions of campaign finance regulation left in this country. The conservative majority continues to espouse the faulty belief that “money = speech” and uses that as justification to strike down campaign finance regulations every time.  In fact, ultraconservative Justice Thomas has gone so far as to even oppose the disclosure requirements – yes, that’s right, not only does he want to remove any and all contribution and spending limits, but he also wants to make sure that we have no idea who is donating the money.

It is also important to note that the concern here is not merely theoretical. The effects of these Court decisions are very real. For example, in the 2012 presidential campaign, outside groups not connected to any one candidate spent more than $1 billion, which nearly equaled the sum spent by outside groups in the previous 12 elections combined.

In response, Senator Reid recently lent his support to a constitutional amendment to empower Congress to regulate campaign fundraising without impediment from the courts.  The amendment was sponsored by two democrats and met with vitriol and fierce opposition from Sen. McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party. They continue to oppose any kind of campaign finance reform.  They also have been staunch opponents of several grass roots movements across the country that support establishing bipartisan commissions to be in charge of redistricting instead of the partisan process that exists in most states.

Let me conclude with one final example about how the free flow of money into politics is diametrically opposed to compromise and collaboration. In the Detroit bankruptcy, we actually saw some real bipartisan leadership in a crisis. The Republican Governor and leaders of the State Legislature on both sides pushed for a bipartisan “grand bargain” to help protect the Detroit Art Institute’s art and ease the cuts to retirees’ pensions.   In response, the Koch Brothers (through their political arm Americans for Prosperity, which has vowed to spend $125 million this election cycle) threatened to run ads against republican legislators who vote in favor of the appropriation before the August primary.

As long as conservatives keep money pouring into our elections (in staggering amounts) and continue to remove any real competition from our elections, U.S. politicians will never be able to collaborate.

(Todd) Obviously, we do disagree on some things, but we both are able to see some of the holes that continue to grow in the current environment. In many ways I believe that the constant media barrage, while intending to shine a light on the work of the government, has actually served to harm it at times. We see people pandering for media attention rather than seeking to actually lead. We see “listening tours”, committee meetings over asinine things with no real impact on America and constant posturing even on the floor of the two chambers (not just at the federal level, but also at the state) that is simply a “made for TV special”.

It’s time to stop. Let’s open up real communication, discuss ideas, disagree when necessary, but find some real positions that we can work toward for the betterment of this nation (and not simply for a small minority of people who have the money, power, media, or shock value to get governments attention)!

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