Lee Hamilton, who is a senior adviser for Indiana University Center on Representative Government had an article on the Op Ed page of our local paper last week. In the beginning paragraph of the article he said that he believes “that our country is divided into two political camps separated by a deep and uncomfortably wide gap.” He says that he is talking about people who believe in our political system and those who don’t. At this point it’s hard not to think of the Winston Churchill saying that although a democratic system is not perfect, it’s better than any other that has been tried. The non-believers are, he says, mostly young people who are disheartened by political polarization and are convinced that people in power place their own interests ahead of the country’s. Hamilton says that good politics means resolving our differences through dialogue and compromise.
Several years ago, I read a book and took a course by George Prince on creative problem solving. The sub-title of his book was ‘A Manual for Dynamic Group Problem Solving”. His process started with the older idea of brainstorming which I was first introduced to at a college seminar when I was still in High School. Brain storming is a way to come up with new ideas from groups of people – the idea is to get people to think of ideas that might be different although maybe impractical. Part of the process is that the group does not make any judgments of the ideas put on the table. George Prince had a process that started with brainstorming but added a phase which would then take what seemed to be the better ideas and then make them practical through a process of group evaluation. One of the keys to the process was that people would not get blamed for coming up with suggestions that were obviously impractical in the beginning. This naturally took acceptance from the group and were not to be publicized by anyone in the group. There would be no evaluation of ideas suggested in the “brainstorming” exercise. Even though an idea might be impractical, the thought was that it might spur someone in the group to think of something that would not have come to them otherwise
A few years later I was in charge of a group that obviously needed some changes in its operation. We had a “committee” of people from all parts of the organization that might be affected. We wanted everybody that might be effected to be represented. We were looking for solutions that Stephen Covey would call “win-win”. This committee did not meet continuously, but maybe once per week until we got finished. We had someone on the committee to take notes and do minutes so we could remember from week to week where we were in the process. The group seemed to be working well and focused on coming up with a good set of solutions. Then our note-taker showed up one week with a tape-recorder which was put in the middle of the room so that everyone’s comments would be recorded. She said she would not do anything to let anyone else hear the tapes, but it would help her write minutes that would only be seen by the committee. I was impressed with how that simple step changed the tenor of the meetings. Everyone got more guarded in their comments. They knew they were being recorded and anyone who heard the tape would know who any of the ideas had come from. The minutes had said only what the group had suggested and did not name anyone. It was a learning experience for me, I would not have guessed that the introduction of a tape recorder by the minute taker who promised to erase the tapes would have made that much difference in how the guarded the group became on the chance that someone outside the group might hear the tapes and make judgments about them.
A few years later, as consultant, I got a call from a lady in charge of a non-profit group who was doing work for a city outside of Tulsa and had a political problem because one of her board members had made some comments to a local news media reporter about the board. The CEO wanted to get the other members of the board together to see if they could discuss the disparaging remarks made by the board member and decide how they should be handled. But she thought the organization was subject to the open meeting laws and she might not be allowed to get the board together without publishing the meeting date and inviting the press and the public. She wanted to get the other board members together by themselves to pull them together, have an open discussion and decide how they should handle the crises caused by the one board member’s comments to the press. I understood perfectly well why the CEO wanted to do this and that it was probably a good idea. But given the open meeting laws, I did not have a good solution for her.
Lee Hamilton cited our 240 years of history as evidence for our political effectiveness. But it’s only been in the last 30 or 40 years that we have open meetings and live TV coverage of congress with every comment make by any of participants judged. And if anyone changes their mind on any subject, it’s reported as if they are not trustworthy. It would seem in the last few years that some of the politicians have figured out ways to use these public open discussions to their advantage. They use the news media for their political purposes in ways that are not helpful to problem solving, but may help them get re-elected. With the politicians wanting to be re-elected, and having their every comment evaluated, they tend to make self-serving manipulative comments. And not being able to modify their thoughts or opinions without being criticized is not good for finding win-win solutions that every one can support.
One of our new state house members was asked by the local paper to list some things she learned in her first year in the Capitol. Her first item was that “It’s not really a two-party system. It’s a two-tribe system.” She goes on to say that “the two tribes don’t really talk. One doesn’t socialize with the other. They don’t work in teams. They are segregated.” And “…there is little opportunity for civil discourse. Yes, theoretically you work on committees together. But make no mistake, the ruling tribe runs everything.” Not exactly what our forefathers had in mind?
So it’s not surprising that we are not as effective as we were for the first 200 years and the young people are smart enough to figure that out. I wish I had a good answer to our current situation. Modern technology has both it’s good points and its bad points. But don’t expect the news media to suggest changes. It would seem they are one of the beneficiaries of this state of affairs..