By the time the column is published, Donald J. Trump will have been inaugurated as the 45th President of The United States. As he takes office, professional polls across the country, indeed the world, reflect a lot more agreement among the populace with the outlines of his proposed policies than his detractors would like to believe, and a lot more anxiety about his temperament, i.e., his readily apparent and blatant narcissism and its potential effect on his decision-making processes and his priorities than his admirers would like to think or care about.
With no sign of the soon to be presidential “Tweet Wars” being abated in consideration of the assumption of the burdens of the presidency by Donald J. Trump and new online battles with Civil Rights Icon, Congressman John Lewis, Arnold Schwarzenegger”, “The Terminator”, and Actress Meryl Streep having been initiated, time management could become a critical issue for the new President, especially between the tweeting time of midnight and 4:00 a.m. and during the time normally reserved for Intelligence Briefings.
All this distracts from the most important point, which is that the toxic political atmosphere in our country is, without question, interfering without capacity to solve pressing problems.
As former Arizona Court of Appels Judge Bruce E. Meyerson, now like this writer, a Mediator, Arbitrator and Trainer, points out, “problem-solving, which we do every day as Neutrals, is never made easier when those in dispute attack the motives, integrity, or character of others.” These verbal attacks are described as “Unproductive Communication” by Christopher Moore in his classic text, “The Mediation Process.”
Inject this “unproductive communication” into the larger world of politics and we see the cause and effect relationship of over the top political rhetoric, commercials with references to “Second Amendment Remedies, “and websites which put the crosshairs of a rifle on “targeted” congressional districts to the points of impasse we have reached on so many challenges facing our country and state. These messages preaching intolerance emanate from both the left and the right fringes of our politics. They bring credit to neither. As former Iowa Republican Congressman and Chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities has written presciently – “Words matter!” stirring anger and playing on the irrational fears of citizens inflames hate when coupled with character assassination, polarizing rhetoric can exacerbate intolerance without, in any way, facilitating problem-solving and respect for other points of view.
The Conflict Resolution Profession has some very valuable insight and lessons to offer in this environment. As retired Judge Meyerson said at a recent panel discussion at Emory University on “Civility in American Politics,” skillful communication can turn information into power and conflict into opportunities for greater understanding, more meaningful solutions and a stronger sense of community.” Indeed it can! And for that reason, perhaps we ought to put his remarks on CD’s and distribute them to the members of Congress and our state legislature with a training video on how to “skillfully communicate.”
There is, however, an interesting dissent to this viewpoint which is illustrated by a colleague and friend, F. Peter Phillips, a Mediator and Blogger in New Jersey. In his Blog, Phillips notes that at its core, the question is” Can a public leader be a problem-solver while still leading?” The answer is debatable.
The debate highlights the differences in the role of a Mediator and Political Leader. For example, a political leader advocates policy and seeks public support for it; a Mediator (in theory) has no view as to what the outcome of a dispute ought to be. Having been entrusted with power by being elected or appointed, a political leader advances policy in the face of opposition from other political factions; a Mediator (in theory) treats disputing parties even-handedly and without regard to his or her own interests or point of view. Finally, a political leader in our representative democracy is empowered to advance certain articulated goals; a Mediator (in theory) seeks only to help the disputants identify a mutually beneficial outcome to a conflict so they can return to more socially productive endeavors. The question, then, asks Phillips, is do these distinctions compel the conclusion that political leadership necessitates belligerence?
Former President Obama campaigned for the presidency promising to rise about partisanship, i.e. all conflict and become the person who would reconcile divided parties: internationally the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Pakistanis and the Indians and closer to home our very own Republicans and Democrats. During his first two years at best he had some directional progress, but little demonstrable success abroad. At home, he pointedly abandoned any pretense to being a mediator probably as a result of a combination of necessity and frustration to push legislation on healthcare and financial regulation and stimulus. His inability to reconcile his two roles as political leader and Mediator/Reconciler (Unifier) explain his inability to play both roles may well have caused him and more directly his political party to lose significant electoral support among independents who wanted him to be a mediator. His party, on the other hand, may have lost a portion of its base on the left who wanted him and his nominated successor, Hillary Clinton, to be strictly a political leader.
The president and his political party’s failure to reconcile these two roles left the county at the mercy of the promises of populist “negotiator” who campaigned as neither a Mediator nor a political leader, but rather a “fixer” whose policies largely remain unknown and unpredictable (“only I can fix it”) as well as unhinged or even coherently related to any economic or political philosophy.
As F. Peter Phillips points out, the test of the success of a Mediator is whether he or she achieves a “mutual level of dissatisfaction among the settling disputants.” The very different test of a leader is whether he or she effects change.” These two measures inevitably yield two helpful (if perhaps unwelcome) truths. The first is that the power of a leader achieves its highest social utility when it is exercised. The other is that you can’t effectively and credibly mediate a case, an issue, or a policy if you want it to come out in a certain way. This, in turn, yields a universal lesson to both political leaders and Mediators for very different reasons. It shouldn’t be about you, so get over yourself. Whether and when that lesson will be learned by the new President and his administration and how, remains to be seen!