The Common Ground Fallacy

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 4: Evening arrives at the Capitol building, covered in scaffolding for major repairs, on Capitol Hi
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 4: Evening arrives at the Capitol building, covered in scaffolding for major repairs, on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Today's elections will decide which party will lead the Senate. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

President Obama last week named a few areas where he sees potential for forward movement due to shared views and interests with Republicans in Congress, including putting people back to work through stronger manufacturing in the U.S., selling more to countries around the world and infrastructure improvements.

But do these constitute common ground so frequently mentioned in the press as an option in Washington or simply intersections of selective interests on the way to different goals? The distinction has important implications.

Common ground exists when, through reasoning, a fairly solid foundation of agreement is identified enabling parties at odds to cooperatively move forward. That's not an option at this time on Capitol Hill. Reasoning is not valued, the will to find common ground has vanished and compromise is seen as weakness or even betrayal. Yet shared views and interests are frequently cited as a means to end gridlock. Who, exactly, are we fooling?

When one party has made explicit that its primary goal is to block nearly anything proposed by a sitting president and, further, to undo substantive achievements to date -- when revenge requires all Republican senators and representatives to adhere to that primary goal -- then seeking agreement is seen as a contradiction.

For their part, the Democrats are a weary and largely disappointed lot. Expectations were high when President Obama was first elected. The results have come nowhere near that level and so many have simply given up. With one party bent on obstructionism and obliterating the legacy of the president and the other barely showing up, persuasion, upon which a healthy democratic government depends, has given way to reciprocal intransigence.

It's curious that Americans who hold differing political views can often find issues on which they agree. Business negotiators do this everyday. Even President Obama and China's President, Xi Jinping, just managed to find common ground on climate change. Yet, the people who represent Americans in government have closed down this option.

What happens when reasoning is rejected as a path forward and common ground is unachievable? Is there any hope? One alternative is to attempt influence via quid pro quo: "You give us what we want on one issue, and we'll give you what you want on another," essentially government based on reciprocal swaps.

Here agreement on issues is not necessary. So, surely it must be within the grasp of even the most divided of adversaries. Yet, little evidence exists of any significant quid pro quo activity between the two major political parties. Even compromising on issues across the aisle in order to receive benefits for one's own constituents is now disparaged.

Perhaps the greatest loss is that we're inadvertently teaching our children and grandchildren that government operates by people taking sides and sticking to them unless a significant threat or crisis necessitates otherwise. That is not a government prepared for major challenges. It's one characterized by a tit-for-tat, no-way, no-how, not-on-my-watch obstinacy. Without persuasion available to leaders, the only way forward consists of two other forms of influence - coercion and manipulation.

Do you want an increase of the minimum wage, as a majority of American citizens increasingly do? Do you want the hemorrhaging of US-developed technology and of middle-class and blue-collar jobs overseas to be reversed? Do you want both secure borders and humane treatment of undocumented immigrants? How about well-functioning disaster and medical services when you need them and an environment safe for future generations?

When an overarching, primary goal of one side isn't even remotely connected to the issues at hand and the other side relents or responds in kind, when reasoning is considered weakness, common ground is a fantasy, quid pro quo is not an option, and debate is merely a series of speeches punctuated by questions, persuasion has left the room. Politics has become pathological. We've lost the plot. And that simply isn't good.

Kathleen also blogs here.