Washington Is Fixed and Needs to Be Broken

Fellow Citizens:

In December, Gallup reported a 13% approval rating for Congress -- a record low. Last year hundreds of bills were sent to the Senate which were never debated on the floor. In the last two terms of Congress, 275 filibusters were brought to the floor, the highest number in congressional history and twice the amount of the previous two terms.

No budget was passed in Congress in 2010, and 125 executive branch positions and 48 judicial positions remained unfilled because the nominees were never brought to a vote. And despite the 11th hour legislative productivity on the New Start arms control treaty and the repeal of "Don't ask, Don't tell", it appears that much of the next two years will be devoted to fighting over what just passed -- in particular the health care bill, the stimulus, financial regulation and tax policy. Many Republicans are fuming over last-minute law-making and have hinted at revenge.

And it's not just Washington that is polarized and gridlocked. If you look at the geographic breakdown of Democratic and Republican voting within each of the 50 states over the last three presidential elections, you see a fascinating pattern. The world has been changed dramatically since 2000, by 9/11, the global threat of terrorism, a world financial crisis, the rise of China and India, the spread of H1N1 virus, the BP oil spill (the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history), and so much more. Yet despite this, the Blue versus Red voting breakdown within every state has barely budged. Our country and the world around us are being buffeted by extraordinary forces from every direction, but U.S. citizens keep voting the same way in the same places.

These patterns, in Washington and across the country, are what complexity scientists call attractors. They are patterns of behavior that resist change and that people and groups feel drawn to reenact repeatedly and often automatically, even when they may at times prefer not to. Attractors are created by a combination of many things - beliefs, habits, norms, loyalties, the media - that slowly come together to form powerful constraints on how we think, feel and act. In other words, it just may be that the behaviors of our politicians (and our populace) are currently ruled by forces largely beyond their control.

The bad news is this is happening at a time when we are facing multiple crises. Our deficit is astronomical (it increases by $4.2 billion a day), and now Congress has to raise the ceiling on our debt to allow us to accrue more debt. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have now cost us more than $1.1 trillion and the lives of nearly 5,000 U.S. military men and women. Vast numbers of Americans are currently in desperate need of jobs, food and decent housing. Our education system is in a free-fall - we recently ranked 14th out of 34 OECD countries in reading, 17th in science and 26th in math. Today, we rank 42nd in child mortality rates, behind developing world countries such as Cuba, Chile and Serbia. Globally we face growing networks of innovative, adaptive terrorists, an increasing number of weather- and climate-related disasters, large-scale epidemics, and a profound sense of international alienation form American values and leadership.

But the American People can make a difference. We must follow by example. The divisive attractor we are trapped in was created by all of us. The high-profile political attacks are the merely tip of the iceberg. Our words and deeds in our homes and communities have done much to contribute to the current climate of vitriol, blame and contempt in this country. We have allowed this -- even encouraged it. Not to exonerate our leaders of their responsibilities, but if we want good leadership today, we must do all that we can to change the patterns that shape Washington, in order to increase the probabilities that our politicians will be motivated and able to put their heads TOGETHER to adequately define and address our most severe problems. The good news is that times of crisis provide ideal conditions of for radical change.

What can We the People do? We can destabilize this fixed system. We can change it from the bottom up. Research on complex systems shows that even slight changes in the basic rules of actors in a system can have huge emergent effects on the qualities of the system. If each of us made a few small changes in how we think and act in our own lives, it could trickle up and affect how our leaders lead.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Open up. Invite a member of the Other party over for coffee. Agree beforehand to spend just 10 minutes each speaking about the problems and issues that matter most to you, without interruption. Don't sell anything, just try to be honest. And try to listen. Do you share any concerns?

2. Take notice. Science tells us that 90-95% of our daily behaviors are automatic - things we do every day without thinking (taking a shower, driving a car, preparing a meal, reacting to our kids, neighbors, coworkers). Notice these. Many of our automatic behaviors may be contributing to our divisions.

3. Beware absolute certainty. Life is complex, and many of the more serious problems we face are really complicated. Typically, solutions to these problems will be mixed - with both good and bad outcomes. If someone is selling you on solutions that are problem-free sure things, beware.

4. Take responsibility for the state of our state. Blame is cheap, easy and seductive and fuels contempt. Ask: What has our side done to contribute to the current climate?

5. Reflect on your own contradictions. Many of us do or say things that go against our values and better intentions. Or we have conflicting impulses or even belong simultaneously to groups with opposing agendas (say, the NRA and Moveon.org!). Acknowledge these impulses and conflicts. Research shows that being mindful of such contradictions in ourselves makes us more tolerant people.

6. Go new. Travel somewhere: to a strange part of town, a new ethnic restaurant, or to a strange land. This, too, increases our tolerance for difference.

7. See possibilities. Few of the problems we face are truly insurmountable. Even our most daunting problems can and will be solved. Optimism has been found to be good for our health and our relationships.

These actions may seem trivial, but they add up. If done often enough, they can change a person, a home, a community. They can help us break out of our attractors; our habits of blame, negativity and denial of responsibility. They can open up our thinking, feeling and behavior, and, in time, enable our leaders to lead.
Ask not what your country can do for you...

Peter T. Coleman, PhD is a social-organizational psychologist on faculty at both Teachers College and Columbia University, and author of the forthcoming book: The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts.