We have had a lot of yelling and finger-pointing pretending to be public discourse the last couple of years here in the USA. Our increasing appetite for extremism and mud slinging may be the single biggest obstacle to finding a way out of the fiscal and social mess we are in. Perhaps rather than pointing a finger at our elected officials, we need to be looking into a mirror about what we ask of them. Maybe we should stop asking them to be (or deifying them for being) stubborn, pig headed and self-righteous in order to win elections, and start insisting that they listen to one another and engage constructively.
Rather than a focus on analyzing the problem, Esquire Magazine created a project in October to demonstrate the benefit of solving it. Esquire invited 4 alums of the US Senate to spend 3 days together with a single goal- balance the US Budget. On the Republican side: Bob Packwood and John Danforth. On the Democratic side: Gary Hart, and Bill Bradley. Esquire invited Lawrence O’Donnell to act as chair, largely out of his “…intolerance for bullshit from either side.” (Yes, several of these men have controversial histories; and, all of them have experience with the challenge that they were at the table to solve. Read the full article at the link to Esquire below.)
Over 3 days, these 5 men did what Congress should be doing. They debated, explored, worked with data rather than diatribe or political dogma, listened to each other, made hard choices and walked out with a plan to eliminate the deficit by 2020. I am certain it is not perfect. Nor is it the only answer to the Gordian Knot of our current budget issues. I am equally certain that we would hear howling from the extremists on both sides of the aisle should anything like their proposal find its way to the floor of Congress. But it remains a clear and shining example of what can be done when the focus is on the issues on the table rather than the next election..
The commission had no need to use the debate to demonize their colleagues. No one required the approval of an extreme (or extremely vocal) constituent base and as such, no one feared reprisal for actually engaging in a reasonable debate. There were no cameras or reporters to play to. Or, as Esquire put it in their usual expressive prose:
“…and unlike the conduct that has come to define our poisonous contemporary political moment, each side would not ascribe the absolute worst motives to the other in order to make its points. No one would be accused of being out to destroy the Constitution. No outlandish conspiracy theories would govern the judgment of the participants. No one’s values would be held as suspect. No one’s very legitimacy would be in question. Rather, these senators were the very picture of spirited and rigorously informed good government.”
I do not feel a strong need to connect the dots here about the leadership content of this project. Anyone who has sat on a project team, dealt with silos and turf wars or even tried to get a difficult but unpopular project underway knows exactly how this story applies.
The summary of the project can be found on Esquire’s site here, with links to the full article in the November issue.