The term “gridlock” is often used to describe relations between the executive and legislative branches in Washington, D.C. The phrase evokes a mental picture of cars backed up, sitting motionless with engines spewing exhaust because of blocked intersections, allowing no one the ability to move in traffic.
Political gridlock exists because neither the Democratic or Republican parties enjoy sufficient enough majorities to push through laws that fulfill either party’s political agenda.
It is constructive to look at the impasse in the nation’s Capitol through the lens of strategic communication.
Politics is essentially a process of leveraging power, i.e., popularity, to determine the best course of action between competing ideas. Elected representatives are dispatched by voters to discuss issues in a rhetorical framework, arguing why one law makes for a better solution than a competing initiative.
As leaders, the elected lawmakers are supposed to operate with communication channels that function down, up and throughout the organization. I write my Congressman to tell him what I think should be done on taxation issues or I speak up at a Town Hall meeting with my thoughts on the military.
My feedback is taken under advisement with the tacit understanding that others in my community probably feel the same way, so a failure to listen may cause me to vote for the other guy next time. Most people give some latitude, aware that a lawmaker may know more facts than we do or have an opportunity to give some now in order to take later.
We elect slick politicians fully expecting them to use their charm offensive to duke it out in ways that get our wants and needs a place in the conversation.
President Barack Obama lacks no amount of rhetorical gifts, but he has been criticized for not chumming it up with members of Congress in the way to which they are accustomed. In his defense, it is hard for anyone to buddy up with warmth to those who vowed quite vocally to be adversarial before he took the oath of office. Insisting Obama deserves no olive branches because he hasn’t sufficiently schmoozed you seems petulant to those outside of the process looking in.
Our democracy is threatened by increased partisanship, as if each speech and every bill is a blunt instrument to hammer one’s opponent rather than a tool for discovering common ground and room for compromise. It makes one ponder the end game and exit strategy, where room remains for acceleration going forward if the level of distrust and contempt is already so high.
Even the foundation of operational respect for the institution of Congress, their basic rules of decorum, are under seige when members insert themselves into the State of the Union address with verbal outbursts that Obama is a “liar.”
In this increasingly dysfunctional organization, language becomes the primary weapon of polarization. Republicans managed to attach negative connotations to words like “liberal.” Democrats also attach derogatory labels to portray conservatives in unflattering ways. Demonizing one’s opponent is part of the game, but extreme instances can backfire as in the case of the campaign graphic that had Democratic lawmakers’ districts shown in crosshairs just before Gabby Giffords was literally shot in the head by a crazed assassin. There was no link between the two actions, but some were quick to suggest the rhetoric had become too extreme — that someone who spends most of his day listening to partisan talk radio might be just a nudge away from so-called “Second Amendment solutions.”
Sometimes, ordinary people toss words like “socialist” around as insults without even understanding what they mean, emulating pundits they hear on TV or radio. Modern media serves as an echo chamber for one side to chant how great their team is and how bad the other is. Simultaneously, algorithms on social networks and search engines calculate what content and results to generate based on probability factors, coloring perceptions of reality based on what they think we want to hear and see – which is not the same thing as what we NEED to hear or see.
If one believes the truth lies in the middle and thus soaks in information from both Fox News and MSNBC at the same sitting, what they receive is not necessarily the middle ground but rather views from the edges of the continuum.
As I read in a study by Auburn researcher Susan Waters this week:
“The media have the capability to select certain events or specific views of an event and cover them more frequently or more prominently than others, thereby giving the perception to the public that those events or opinions are more important. Because the media cannot report every single event, they must be selective in what they report. By selecting what to report, the media are ultimately selecting what events the public is thinking about and how it is thinking about them… The media establish the important issues (and then) determine what is important about those issues for the public. Essentially, the media determine the issues and then frame those issues for the public.”
In the current Us versus Them political climate, there’s a reticence to accept new ideas, reduce our defensiveness and respect another person’s point of view.
In an article prepared for the U.S. Air Force, Dr. John A. Kline refers to the “situational climate” in which focused feedback is encouraged and disagreements are dealt with in ways that bring individual and organizational goals in line with one another.
America seems to be creeping toward one of the alternatives, which Kline calls the “dehumanized climate”; one in which the people at the top make derogatory assumptions about their subordinates and keep each person competing for their favor.
Kline argues that leaders who seek and remain open to different views, using group pronouns and establishing appropriate work climates where communication behavior adjusts to fit a given situation, can avoid organizational bottlenecks.
That seems preferable to a situation of gridlock where voices scream, “My way or else…”
I’ve had many spirited discussions with those who feel differently than myself politically where I could sense that rather than actively listening to the point I’m making and trying to relate to it with an open mind, the other person is busy formulating a zinger to sting me with at their next available entry point in the discussion.
Kline also cautions about misinterpretation of actions and meanings of words.
Congress is presently engaged in a debate over immigration, but even the language used as a framework for debate is so polarized as to defy middle ground. Is a bill a “pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers” or “amnesty for illegal aliens”? These words carry the weight of connotations.
In a forum of communication combat, terminology dictates meaning.
Republicans feel a need to address the migrant worker issue because of shifting demographics that may determine future political leanings of voting blocks, yet we see a civil war of sorts between those who realize practical necessity and those so entrenched by old prejudices that they cannot easily alter their position or admit they may have been wrong. Others feel so strongly about a single issue, be it abortion or Second Amendment gun rights, that they will vote based on how their elected leader moves on that one thing, regardless of whatever else he or she does while in office.
Meanwhile, political district lines have been redrawn to protect candidates based on the ideological leanings of the constituents within the resulting areas, creating scenarios where incumbents must satisfy their base to avoid facing primary challengers, rather than appealing to the middle as moderates who remain open to different views. Conceivably, you could see a trend of candidates winning their primaries yet losing in general elections because of stated policy positions that appease the base but fail to elicit broader appeal.
Within that climate, individuals jockey for attention and work in concert with those in alliance to hurl rhetorical torpedoes at the other side. It eventually leads one to suspect that Congress is the ultimate bottleneck, both figuratively and literally in the form of the filibuster.
My point is not to imply one party is more at fault or more reasonable than the other because parties are not all that much different from one another. It simply makes for fascinating political theater, like a chess game where the moves are verbal.
Is compromise a lost art in Washington? Have the elected representatives become so locked in by language and rigid communication styles that they can’t give and take without appearing weak? Has media become so partisan that the truth is now a casualty? How does America bridge the divide?