By Kate Harper
The loss of civil discussion has caused some of the dysfunction we are experiencing in our nation's capital and in state capitals, including Harrisburg. Competition with hashtags and the substitution of Twitter feeds for listening get in the way of getting things done.
When I was a young commercial litigator, someone gave me the book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by William Ury and Roger Fisher. This short book, based on the Harvard Negotiation Project, teaches a style of negotiation focused on interests and common ground, rather than dwelling on the people or positions of the "other side." I found it useful in business litigation where, despite the lawsuits, there were advantages to maintaining a long-term relationship with the other parties and neither side wanted to spend a lot of money on lawyers in courtrooms. Getting a "good result," rather than "winning at all costs," was good for business.
At the same time, my husband and his business colleagues were listening to Roger Dalton's The Secrets of Power Negotiating, where always getting the best deal was the goal. Sometimes they hilariously tried out the various gambits on one another in social settings, responding to suggestions like "You want a beer?" with "You'll have to do better than that." Both books were best sellers, a simple recognition that there are different styles of negotiating, each appropriate for some places or scenarios, but with the same goal of getting a deal done.
"Getting things done" is no longer a goal of many politicians. Instead, the goal is to stake out a bold position, or become a household name, in order to attain a higher office. What the person will do once in higher office seems unimportant. We get what we deserve when we elect people for a good sound bite rather than for a record of accomplishment.
Ronald Reagan, whom 72 percent of Americans saw in 1981 as someone who could "get things done," was schooled by the Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill after one clash that the GOP lost badly. "Old buddy, that's politics," O'Neill told Reagan. "After 6 o'clock, we can be friends, but before 6, it's politics." Still they both managed to get things done.
Too often these days, we substitute labels for issues, putting ourselves and others in categories that make personal relationships and agreeing with one another on anything impossible. We claim the moral high ground, refusing to compromise, but the result is gridlock. Nothing gets done.
We're not taking time to understand what is important to the other side, and looking for creative ways to reconcile disparate positions is a lost art - in Harrisburg and Washington. So budgets are late or nonexistent, public pension funds are bankrupt, and neither side gets what it wants.
In a democracy, we (citizens and politicians) must be able to discuss these issues with one another, using well-thought-out and educated positions of our own. But we must also come to the negotiating table with a willingness to understand and appreciate the other's position enough to be swayed by it if that is the appropriate response for the people we represent.
If we fail, the citizens, in their frustration, will exercise their own Twitter-appropriate response and "Throw the bums out." Well, all of us are "the bums," and what will they get in place of the current crop?
Is this any way to run a democracy?