November 19, 2013

Central Minnesota experts take academic perspective to political bickering and society

Central Minnesota experts take academic perspective to political bickering and society

Saint Cloud Times

By Stephanie Dickrell

Little compromise is seen in Washington, experts say, but it's rare in daily conversation although debate in Washington seems to have calmed down for the time being, it’s left many wondering whether compromise is a lost art.


Attendees gather around economics professors and moderators King Banaian from St. Cloud State University and Louis Johnston from St. John's University on Thursday for the McCarthy Center-sponsored Politics and a Pint discussion on the debt ceiling. / Kimm Anderson,

The struggle to effectively compromise also can be seen in the Minnesota Legislature, which itself triggered a state government shutdown in 2011. And a local professor said he has seen students who think they can argue a point by simply stating an opinion, not realizing they need to back it up with fact. It can even be seen at the dinner table where friends and relatives call for compromise then deride a politician for taking a moderate stand.

The causes of the shutdown deal with political realities, but also how Americans argue and disagree with each other and how groups work through conflicts.

Local experts examined the shutdown from their academic perspectives, suggesting factors that contribute to gridlock in Washington, whether it can be fixed and what it says about American culture.

The answer? It’s complicated, and no, there’s no silver bullet.

Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor and director of the McCarthy Center at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, said it’s hard to say whether a “culture of no compromise” at the national level trickles down to state and local politics, but he said it would be an intriguing research project.

He regularly has group discussions on contentious issues, such as the Politics and a Pint discussion last week where local experts discussed the debt ceiling debate with students and the public.
“Most people don’t like the bickering and no compromise; they see the dysfunctionality of the shutdown,” he said. “But at the same time, they go to their dinner tables and Facebook and continue zero-sum dialogue.”

“There’s a cognitive dissonance in our culture ... I see it over and over again,” he said. Lindstrom said it’s common to hear assertions that compromise is beneficial, followed by, for instance, labeling an anti-abortion Democrat a sellout or some Republicans RINOs — “Republican in name only,” he said
“That whole definition of RINO is a deadly word. ... It’s a destructive acronym ... it’s driven by the underlying assumption that compromise is bad,” he said.

It reminded him of a Ronald Reagan quote, he said: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.”

He harkened back to the oft-cited relationship between Reagan, a Republican president, and Tip O’Neill, a Democratic speaker of the House, one where they disagreed over policy but got along personally.

“At least they were talking and respecting one another,” he said. “We need a lot more of that these days.”

Lindstrom attributed the crisis in Congress largely to two facts: the lack of cross-party socialization between members of Congress, and electorally “safe” legislative districts. In safe districts, candidates and office-holders don’t have to worry about appealing to the middle. Instead, they worry about losing a primary to someone with a more extreme position to the right or left.

Can't they all just get along?

Arik Putnam is an associate professor of communications at St. Ben’s and St. John’s. He regularly teaches students the dynamics of debate and how to debate to resolve conflict.

He said the knee-jerk reaction to crises like those in Congress is “can’t they just get along?”
Humans incorrectly believe we’re good at dealing with conflict, he said, but we’re not. Simply asking Congress members to put aside personal interests won’t work.

“It won’t work. That’s an insane expectation for a human being,” he said. “The notion to put aside differences and come together is so naive and ahistorical and a bad idea.”

“The idea is not to get rid of difference but to find better ways of dealing with it.”

And the fact we complain about their inability to compromise means we’re implicated in that culture, and that it’s part of a larger cultural trend.

“We like to feel judgmental. There’s a lot of pleasure in judgment,” he said.

He likens it to obsession with the foibles of celebrities, because we can say to ourselves at least we’re not like that.
“It’s the same kind of titillation in scandal, conflict and disagreement,” he said. “Conflict itself is good, but the titillation around it is not.”

The blame game

Putnam contends much of the rhetoric around the shutdown wasn’t focused on resolving the conflict, but rather to blame the other side.

“I think appearing to disagree is more profitable. In the contemporary debate about shutdown ... it has everything to do with blame,” Putnam said. “Blame is a really profitable thing to do. ... Accusing other people is really useful.”

“By posturing, you put off loss,” he said. “We need to find better of ways dealing with not winning everything we want.”

St. Cloud State University Professor of Political Science Steve Frank said accepting loss as part of the political process informs how he approaches another of his roles: that of a St. Joseph City Council member.

And when you do things incrementally, it’s sometimes easier to get consensus.
“You don’t have to change everything at once.”

Putnam high worries events such as the shutdown and debt ceiling deadline could make students less politically engaged and more cynical.

He said he is now seeing students who fail to realize the need for evidence to support an opinion.
“People don’t even tend to justify things anymore,” he said, behaving as though an opinion and an argument carry equal weight.

“The process of justification ... is more important than the assertion itself,” he said.

Work with the 'enemy'

Lindstrom said the lack of socialization between Congress members “dehumanizes the opposition.”
“When you don’t know the other person as a human being, but just as a ‘D’ and an ‘R,’ that incentivizes the culture of no compromise because you’re working with the enemy,” he said.

To get his students to humanize another position, Frank encourages students to change their media habits.

To students who primarily watch Fox News, he suggests reading New York Times editorials. Students who watch MSNBC are encouraged to check out The Wall Street Journal’s editorials.

“That doesn’t mean you accept those ideas,” Frank said, but “if you get a better understanding of where people are coming from, you see where the common areas of understanding are.”

Opening minds

“In order to engage in genuine debate, you have to prepare to be wrong,” Lindstrom said. “You have to be open to what they have to say to you.”

That’s a trait that isn’t widely encouraged.

“We’re more committed to assertiveness and conquest,” he said.

How do we fix this? Experts agree: There’s no quick fix.

Making legislative districts more “purple” — less dominantly Democrat or Republican — could lead to political moderation, Lindstrom said.

But redrawing of legislative districts is years away and in some ideological strongholds probably wouldn’t change much.

House seats, with their shorter terms, were designed to be in touch with the political winds of the day, Lindstrom said. “However ... because of the safe seats, the political winds are not as impactful,” he said.

As for an open mind?

“Both parties are guilty of that bunker mentality,” Lindstrom said, because interest groups are watching closely and scoring votes.

“If you see 360 degrees, that doesn’t mean you’re selling out,” Lindstrom said. “It means you’re talking to other sides.”Central Minnesota experts take academic perspective to political bickering and society