Tag Archives: partisan politics

Lessons From Germany

The Federal Republic of Germany was formed in the wake of one of the most infamous dictatorships in history – the Third Reich. That dictatorship was made possible when leaders in the Weimar Republic effectively eliminated legislative oversight of the Executive Branch. Without such oversight, Hitler acted quickly to consolidate his power and limit civil liberties, leading to the death of millions.

Given this history, it is not surprising that a key focus of the German post-war constitution was ensuring sufficient and ongoing oversight of the Executive Branch. The Bundestag – which is analogous to the United States House of Representatives – exercises this oversight power. As is stated in its public relations guide, Facts: The Bundestag at a glance, the Bundestag “exercises an important power of scrutiny over the Government. No Chancellor or government minister can escape this scrutiny.” Specifically,

  • The executive branch is “required to keep the Bundestag regularly informed of its plans and intentions.”

  • The Bundestag also has the right to appoint committees of inquiry, and it is required to do so if one quarter of its members request it.  The role of these committees is to “investigate possible abuses in government and administration and possible misconduct on the part of politicians. “

  • The committees of inquiry can order the executive branch to submit files, and call government representatives as witnesses.

  • Other parliamentary groups can also demand written information on particular issues, and these can lead to “parliamentary debates in which the Government is required to present its case and answer questions.”

  • Even individual members “can submit written questions to the Government, and government representatives are required to give direct answers to those questions” at question and answer sessions with ministers at scheduled times.

Germany is not the only country that has experienced a struggle between its democracy and a leader who resists oversight.  The book How Democracies Die, details multiple instances of democracies in both Europe and South America that were undermined and diminished by autocratic leaders who rejected legislative oversight and denied the legitimacy of their political opponents.  It is not uncommon for an autocratic leader to dismiss oversight efforts as subversive, criminal, disloyal, or opposed to constitutional order.  Legislative oversight is not, however, a departure from our constitutional order.  Legislative oversight is one of the foundations of a democratic government.

How robust is our democracy? That depends on us. As the authors of How Democracies Die point out, “Democratic institutions depend crucially on the willingness of governing parties to defend them – even against their own leaders.”  That means speaking up for democratic values and democratic institutions.  Critical thinking, independent judgment, a willingness to review information from many different sources, the ability to defuse appeals to hate and fear, and dialogue across partisan lines both by citizens and parties,  are all important tools for strengthening our democracy. If you care about your freedom and your democracy, use them, and request that your elected representatives do so as well.

Pursuing the “American Dream”

In a recent dialogue class for older students we were discussing the “American Dream” and how this concept shifted over time from a dream based in community (“with liberty and justice for all”) to one rooted in more individually focused consumerism, with a particular focus on home ownership. In previous discussions members of the class had expressed a concern for loss of community and expressed dismay at our bitterly partisan politics.  On this day, the class agreed that one dream they had for the next generation was a political system that was less chaotic and divisive, more productive, and one that encouraged individuals and groups to explore ideas, analyze information, and work together.

What might help us move toward that dream?  A place to start is promoting dialogue rather than talking past each other. Another class, held in the Spring of 2018 developed this “citizen’s guide” to encourage just that.  We recommend this guide to anyone interested in more productive political dialogue before, during, and after our upcoming elections.

Navigating DIfficult Dialogues: Phrasing Is Key

As a culture, we easily fall into “power based” patterns in our discussions.  Don’t believe me? Try filling in the blanks in this simple test:

  • “I’m right and you’re____.”
  • “It’s my way or the _____.”
  • “I’m going to talk and you’re going to sit there and ____.”
  • “You’re with us or _____.”

The ultimate question underlying all of these phrases is of course, “who is the winner, and who is the loser”? No-one wants to be the loser.

These power-based patterns occur in subtler forms:  “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “That is just stupid.” “Everyone knows …” “Yes, but …” Underlying all of these statements is the “right/wrong, winner/loser” dynamic. And that dynamic, in whatever form it is used, erodes trust; invokes negative emotions like disgust, anger and fear; and invites push-back. This is the dynamic behind our increasing partisanship, and inability to talk through difficult issues even with (or especially with) friends and family.

For these reasons, consciously avoiding “power-based” framing is a first step in talking through a difficult issue. The dialogue patterns of listening, reflecting, sharing, and inviting invoke very different responses than the “patterns of power.” This is because they accept the other person’s thoughts and feelings as sincerely offered and avoid the “winner-loser” dynamic.

Here’s an example of how that works in practice:  Recently at a wedding, I joined a conversation between a younger relative (liberal) and an older family friend (conservative) which quickly became strained.  The relative had observed that political decisions were often hypocritical, referencing conservative politicians who sought storm aid for their states having previously opposed such aid for New York City in the wake of a hurricane.  The friend responded that the denial of aid was justified “because no US citizens currently live in NYC”.

This was a surprising assertion to me because much of my family (all native-born US citizens!) live in NYC.  However, I could see that both were upset and the discussion was likely to get out of hand if I approached it as a question of “right or wrong”.  So I said to the family friend, “I can tell this issue is very important to you” (acknowledgement), and “I am curious where you got that information, could you tell me more?” (invitation).  That prompted him to talk about a news station he watched, and as we continued to listen, his concerns with over-reliance on government spending and immigration.  I then said “Sometimes it’s hard to know what information to rely on” (acceptance), “although your statement surprised me because much of my family lives in NYC” (sharing).

This exchange in turn led to a question of how my family fared in the hurricane, and then to a discussion of where he had been raised, why he had left, and how reliance on government welfare had undercut his family and the community he once lived in.  During this discussion, the relative was able, in a low-key way, to share information on how statistics were often mis-used, common assumptions that research had proved wrong regarding net givers and takers in various states, and other factual information, without any push-back.  We ultimately all agreed that if “ordinary Americans” had more opportunities to sit down and just talk, much could be learned and many problems could be solved. The conversation ended on a friendly tone, and when the friend saw both me and the relative at another wedding several weeks later, he greeted us warmly.

We need not agree on facts and policies or even values to communicate with one another.  We do, however, have to do something more than assert our own point of view.  We have to have a desire to understand and to connect.  The compassion for, and interest in others that underlie effective dialogue help us to connect.

 

 

 

Hate, Terror, and The Power To Heal

After the twin towers fell 13 years ago, my then 13 year old daughter struggled to understand the world she was growing into.  Ultimately she wrote a poem.  That poem began with a sense of helplessness:

I do not hold in my hand the power to change
 what happened on September 11.
I cannot turn back the hands of time,
and stop the towers from falling,
or the people from dying.
I cannot stop
destruction,
hatred,
loss,

It ended though with hope. The final stanza read as follows:

Some people might say I don’t have the power
to do anything, but they are wrong.
I hold in my hand the power to make a difference.
I can love when others hate.
I can lend a helping hand when it is needed.
Even a small gesture can mean a lot to another.
I have the power to make a difference,
and I hold this power in my hands, heart and mind.

And she was right. We each have the power to fight hate, often in seemingly small ways, but ones that over time can have a collective impact. As individuals we can work to improve our skills for listening, understanding, and productive dialogue.  As citizens we can recognize that too much partisanship is poisonous, and set boundaries both for ourselves and for our elected officials.  When we see patterns of hate developing in our private and public communications, we can act to disrupt those and instead build narratives that strengthen our sense of community. By working together to understand our diverse experiences and perspectives, we can make wiser decisions.

Yes this is idealistic.  We could instead give in to cynicism and despair, allowing the spores of  injustice and hate to grow.  Or we can hold onto our faith that the world can be a better place, and do what we can. It is not impossible for individuals and even nations to change, even though progress may be slow.

So persevere.   Speak-up with courage and compassion, find and encourage others who seek a more peaceful world, forgive where you can, and extend a welcoming hand to those who are different from you.  Dialogue can make a difference and we urge you to build dialogues where-ever you can.

 

 

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Phrasing and Planning

Among the questions asked by my students at the beginning of the semester were the following:  “how can you explore the space between two extremes” and “how can you teach the polarized combatants that the best solution may not be as simple as “yes” or “no”?” They had had ample experience with, and wanted to change the pattern of,  conversations that quickly degenerate from an exchange of views to insults (“didn’t know you were that stupid . . .”) or identity questions (“didn’t know you were one of them”/”so liberal . . .”/”so reactionary . . .”).  Students from other countries were particularly taken aback by this kind of response to a perspective shared from their own experience.

Our classes on dialogue, conflict analysis, and conflict mapping helped the students to answer these questions and to build the skills needed to facilitate the final sessions on gun violence.  Students learned and practiced the dialogue skills of reflective listening, reframing, and asking open-ended questions. The students also used the “pie chart” illustration of sources of conflict, “iceberg” chart of levels of conflict, and conflict maps, to analyze in advance where participants were likely to differ, the different language and framings used for different positions, and how that language might be reframed to best support the participants and invite their participation.

As a result of this analysis, the student facilitators were more confident intervening both to support participants by reflective summarizing, and to open conversations by using questions to link related points. They were able to listen and summarize in ways that educated the participants,  promoting more productive discussion (e.g, “so freedom of choice is important to you (1st person), and you (2nd person) want freedom to make choices about your child’s classroom.”) In addition, this pre-session analysis  helped the facilitators to maintain the dialogue boundaries for the individual sessions (e.g., when responding to a participant who was advocating for a particular solution at an early session: “we are not here tonight to debate solutions, although we are exploring the issues of cost and safety. You have strong concerns on . . .”).

Despite the dialogue training in class, the students who were participating in the discussions (as opposed to facilitating) did, as the discussions heated up, at times fall into more traditional positional framings (e.g., right/wrong; us/them; good/bad). Several also stated their views strongly, using associated rhetorical flourishes (e.g., “who wouldn’t agree? “all the studies show”,  “the only valid studies show”, “everyone knows”, only a fool would”).   Yet when this happened, most participants failed to take the bait, using both humor, questions, and another dialogue technique  — “I statements with invitations” ( example “I have had a different experience, do you mind if I share it?”) — to continue the dialogue.

The “superintendent” was particularly effective at introducing new information in a non-threatening way, using such introductory phrases as “something that troubles me is . . .”, “I’m not sure of the effect that would have on [then naming a cost category like insurance, additional training, amending the collective bargaining agreement, etc.].  At other times he framed his remarks by inviting others to help with a problem that would need solving [“how would we respond to that concern? (referencing a parent’s comment that they would not allow their children in the classroom if the teacher were allowed to carry a gun)].  Other participants also used phrasing that drew others into agreement including an observation that “we don’t want to be an experiment” and a question: “if we’re going to have to raise money, what is the best way to spend it?”

Through this process the students were able to directly experience how responsive phrasing that demonstrates respect and care for the speaker, leads to better listening and understanding for all participants, and ultimately to more informed choices by the group.