Guidelines for Decency in Politics

1.  Don’t Let Your Relationality Get Hi-Jacked.

Honesty, respect, empathy, good listening, positivity – their absence in our politics couldn’t be clearer. Less obvious is how relationality is so effectively short-circuited. Here’s how: First, our partisan tribes suck us in, trumpeting ideals – justice and fairness, opportunity and freedom – that have little to do with their actual policies. Then, they promote a fierce, highly emotional partisan drama by demonizing the “other” side. Don’t get sucked in! He isn’t a hero, she isn’t the devil – or vice versa. The system itself is the problem and everyone that plays by its rules is complicit.

2.  Avoid False, Adversarial Dichotomies.

Our visible public debates are mostly partisan sideshows, meant to distract. While we endlessly argue the merits of government vs. private initiatives, or pro-life vs. pro-choice, office holders – from both parties – quietly implement policies that benefit the wealthy people who finance their ambitions. These emblematic issues do matter, of course. But more desperately needed are voices that, turning away from these simplistic, yes/no, partisan debates, model more relational interactions – from which wiser, more sustaining policy choices can emerge.

3.  Be Clear-Headed About Trust Issues.

In politics, deception and manipulation are the norm. When a person is permanently stuck in these mindsets, a relational political discussion is impossible. Don’t try. But remember, as well, that most of us are decent people who want to do the right thing. It’s just that the tug of partisan habits – and the felt need to maintain credibility with our home tribe – is so strong. Be slow to give up hope. Persisting in the more relational ways of interacting, described below, ##4-7, progress can be made in unexpected places.

4.  Talking politics, the norm is to label each other – liberal or conservative – and then to re-create the partisan debate. Seize the initiative by listening. When he repeats his side’s standard arguments, ask why he feels that way, continuing these inquiries down to first premises and underlying values. As this process unfolds, areas of agreement will come up, more often than you think. Notice and comment on them. And avoid the ever-present temptation to interject your opinions into the process prematurely. General Guideline #5 is never more important than in our politic conversations: “Seek first to understand and, only then, to be understood.”

5.  Focus on Values.

A series of values inform most all of our partisan political positions: Fairness, social mobility and opportunity; care and respect for others; loyalty; respect for the rituals that embody our foundational principles and the people who embody them; and so on. While greater emphasis might be placed on one set of values over others, well-intentioned political partisans – across the political spectrum – are likely see all of these values as worthy of consideration. So talk values first and, then, build out “what to do,” policy discussions from the shared aspirations these conversations reveal.

6.  Frame Problems and Solutions in Less Partisan Ways.

Our partisan language often masks significant areas of agreement. So, for example, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were commonly viewed as fierce adversaries, completely at odds. But a better approach – one that might have moved us toward different, more constructive policy initiatives – would have emphasized their share opposition to the abuses of power perpetuated by so many of our largest institutions: Big government (for the Tea Party); the financial sector and big business (for Occupy Wall Street).

7.  Find Commonalities, Define Differences, Seek Creative Compromise.

While agreement is a fine outcome, important differences will persist with many people. The goal therefore is, first, to understand the (often surprising) areas of agreement that the relational processes, described above, will uncover. And then, to develop a shared understanding of the differences that persist as a prelude to crafting creative policy compromises that best meet all partisans’ varying goals and aspirations.

8.  Don’t Be De-Railed By Experts and the Media.

The anti-relational values that permeate our politics thoroughly infected the policy experts and the media people we rely on to keep us informed. The visible ones – and those with the biggest megaphones – are either directly paid by political partisans or maintain visibility and power by reflecting these values. While these people provide helpful facts and analysis, don’t look to them for answers to what ails us. Be especially suspicious when their message is: “You don’t understand. It can’t be done.”

9.  Think Long Term.

This way of engaging, politically, is very different from the crisis driven, fix-it-now mentality that dominates the political landscape. Note, however, that you can decisively diverge from these mindsets and, at the same time, participate in short-term political initiatives. The danger, however, is that the felt urgency to change things, now, will lead to de-emphasis or outright abandonment of these relational principles. Avoid this trap. Fundamental change in our politics is a long shot but – absent this context-altering work – it will be utterly unattainable.