A couple of years ago, a neighbor invited me to help judge a debate tournament at Big Sky High School. Her son was on the team. One format required a team of two to argue one side of an issue against an opposing pair. Neither team knew which side they would be pitching until a coin flip at the start. In other words, these high school students had learned that complex issues generally have arguments on both sides, and they needed a well-rounded perspective on the issue to succeed.
Why then do we adults too often refuse to consider alternate viewpoints?
As a candidate for the Montana House of Representatives, I am talking to many voters. Time and again, I hear a plea for more listening and for more cooperation between political parties. Good listening skills would seem to be essential in someone claiming to represent others, but sometimes those skills are not evident.
It is not hard to find reasons for partisanship. There is something human about wanting to be part of a tribe. I admit that I have stood and cheered with those around me at political rallies when the speaker gets off a zinger against the other guys. Once, early in my campaign, I made the mistake of trash-talking the opposition, as if we were in a Griz-Cat contest. I quickly learned that putting such emotions into the mix did not raise the level of the dialogue, and did not help in finding common ground.
Partisanship is reinforced by our sources of information. We get different sets of “facts” on which to base our positions, depending upon whether we typically listen to NPR or watch Fox News. A Google search on a topic, say evolution, yields different results for different people, depending upon what articles they have read before. This is a little scary. Psychologists have demonstrated that we take in information that fits our world view more readily than information conflicting with it. And now Google may be enhancing this tendency to make us less objective than high school debaters!
Concern about the consequences of partisanship is nothing new. George Washington cautioned in his 1796 farewell address:
“Let me now … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party ... The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it ... It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration.”
Or more recently, from former Montana Secretary of State and Senate president Bob Brown’s fine May 14 column in the Missoulian:
“Our founders created a system that discourages rule by radicals by forcing compromise. Being unable to overcome the safeguards of the Constitution, today’s partisan puritans have stymied themselves. The pity though, is that in refusing to work together as the Constitution requires, they cannot do the job the American people require.”
Successful businesses seek “win-win” contracts with their customers or suppliers. Then both parties have a stake in the contract’s endurance. The alternate “winner-take-all” approach is neither good business nor good government. Legislation that is blatantly one-sided risks veto or later repeal. Legislation built on common ground or some give and take gets past constitutional checks and balances. It is enduring, sustainable legislation that gets the people’s business done.
The Founding Fathers had no shortage of issues dividing them: slavery, rural and urban constituencies, large and small states. Yet diverse interests worked together to create our federal Constitution. There is no better example of a “win-win” contract that has proven sustainable for over 200 years.
In 1972, Montanans convened a Constitutional Convention. They too had plenty to argue about. Recognizing the potentially “baneful effects of the spirit of party,” organizers found a novel way to combat them. Delegates were seated alphabetically rather than by political party, putting Democrats, Republicans and Independents side by side where they could talk. Evidently that did the trick, and our Montana Constitution has endured 40 years and counting.
Sadly, it is hard to imagine such cooperative efforts happening today in ultra-partisan Washington. Montana should not go further down that path.
Dave Andrews of Missoula is running as a Democrat to represent House District 100 in the Montana Legislature.