Archive for October, 2013

Last week I talked about the communication consequences of extreme political polarization. The same consequences exist when it comes to economic polarization. And when both of these situations exist simultaneously, the consequences are doubly serious.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, and filmmaker, Jacob Kornbluth, have recently teamed up to produce a video on the topic of economic polarization. Inequality for All explores the potentially dire consequences of the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in American society… and most especially, the dangerously weakening of a critically essential middle class.

Wall street versus Main street media stories sometimes create the illusion that they are simply separate situations. One is about stock prices and investment earnings, and the other is about a weakened local job economy. But the reality is that the wealth of corporate and Wall street executives is ultimately dependent on the skilled work and talent of those in the middle and working classes.

In the short-term, Wall street wealth can be leveraged through financial manipulation. But in the final analysis, the entire system will collapse when middle-class managers and other workers evaporate,  walk off the job, or even worse… become violent.

This situation has very much to do with communication dynamics. First, media coverage tends for a while to allow most individuals to feel distant from ultimate consequences. Second, human nature produces some period of withdrawal and denial, believing that things will eventually get better. But when the situation seriously deteriorates to the point of extreme middle-class and working class hardship, a perceived greed and lack of caring at the at the top inevitably will lead to social collapse.

Interactive communication, based on a sincere and shared desire to solve the problem, including an acknowledgement of mutual interdependence, is the only way forward. Otherwise, a polarized  economy will lead to polarized rhetoric, which will lead to a seriously destructive social class collision. And with the same situation existing at the same time in American politics, the consequences for our democracy can be frightening.

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This week Congress finally was able to orchestrate a strategy to reopen the government and avoid default on American debt. But while a method was finally reached to make this happen, no significant communication lessons were learned about the long-range damage of extreme polarization… even among many moderates.

For example, the Texas Republicans all voted against the bi-partisan bill. Voting as an extremist block has communication dynamic consequences. It confuses what you really believe in the minds of your audiences, destroys your capacity to be singularly understood as a strong leader, and makes you look like you lack the courage to stand out when the situation calls for it.

I use this example because I know some of these people. I thought I knew where they stood politically, but also on matters of true statesmanship. It has nothing to do with my political preferences. I am as bi-partisan as anyone… a little left of center on a few social issues, and slightly right of center on financial ones. Rather my communication consequence concerns are about the necessary ground rules for constructive debating in a democratic society.

As a communicator I describe these ground roles like this: As a politician you argue what you honestly believe during the campaign and when bills are being developed. In the final analysis, however, you behave like a statesman. You understand that compromise is not losing and can be win-win, that changes can be made over time, and that your main job after compromise is to win the next election.

To behave otherwise, the communication consequence is chaos and confusion. Thoughtful individuals lose capacity to lead. And American “exceptionalism” declines as a positive identity and becomes a negative perception all over the world.

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What I have learned from my research and professional experience over the years is that all communication initially fails. As awful as that sounds, it is fundamentally true. And what follows is always some form of misunderstanding.

But why does all communication fail? It is because of a human condition we call “selective perception.” We give our own meaning to words. For example, the word “compromise”  means a win-win conclusion to some, and a giving up to others. We always prefer ideas that reinforce what we already believe. And when we hear something we dislike, we reject it. Unfortunately, a state of  misunderstanding is the consequence. And it can only be corrected through open-minded interaction.

But beyond this “naturally resulting” misunderstanding, there are at least two forms of “strategic” misunderstanding, or ‘intentional” misunderstanding.

One form is to deny something  that you really understand as an excuse to simply continue doing what you want. “I am so sorry,” you say. “But I just could not understand what that person was saying!” It is a short-cut to avoid dealing with a situation openly.

The second form of strategic misunderstanding is all too common in today’s politics and foreign policy. For Example, something like this might be said: “No one can understand that law. It’s just stupid. We must eliminate it!” This is a mean-spirited method of openly attacking an opponent.

What is going on in Congress today is too often this form of “strategic misunderstanding.” No one is making an effort to understand the other side. Intentional misunderstanding is a strategic choice.  And it is a strategy based on the growing belief that admitting you understand the other person’s point of view will bring an inevitable political defeat.

But there is an even larger communication inevitability here: Strategic misunderstanding always becomes destructive. It totally eliminates the possibility of reasonably negotiated solutions, and eventually solidifies extreme polarization.

Such a tactic is the absolute opposite of traditional American “statesmanship.” It first produces personal and group hostility, then it advances to open conflict, and ultimately it can lead to a complete unraveling of civilized society.

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The Republican Tea Party extremists are ignoring the lessons of how communication ultimately works. This is not any longer merely an ideological dispute within the Republican Party. The Tea Party extremists are setting up a communication dynamic that can not only destroy their party, but it also has the potential to destroy our system of democracy.

These rebels might be able to secure their own re-election in their narrowly drawn ultra-conservative congressional districts. But what good is this if they cannot win back the White House, where they will have their only real opportunity to change how government works.

In his op-ed piece in the New York Times this week Tom Friedman reinforced that this is more than party politics. He observed that “our very democracy is at stake.” He reminds us that “majority rule is still the rule,” and that Obama-care is the law. This is not merely an ideological disagreement. “Our democracy is imperiled.”

Majority rules is our system. A law is a law. Win the election first, then move to change the world.  Republican strategy now should be aimed at winning the national election.

It’s customary in American politics for the political pendulum to swing from right to left and back again. With that in mind, here is a better strategy for Republicans:

(1) Assert a belief in the American political system.

(2) Acknowledge that Obama won the election.

(3) Explain that Republicans used every acceptable legislative tactic available to them to change a law they do not like, but now the time has come to re-open government.

(4) Begin now to unite and energize the party by reminding all Republicans that only with solid unity can they win back the White House. This is the only effective way in our system to change how government works.

Our democratic system is based on solid communication dynamics: Argue your differences aggressively. Be willing to compromise when the time for argument has past. Once past, respect that a law is a law. Accept that winning an election is a legitimate opportunity to lead. And then regroup to win back the White House the next time.

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