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What We Can Learn from the Government Shutdown

By Herb Bowie

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Government Shutdown

As I write this, those of us in the U.S. are on day 30 of a partial federal government shutdown whose effects are increasingly rippling through our society.

How did we get here, we might ask ourselves? And how might we avoid such lunacy in the future?

Here are seven things we might want to watch out for.

Things to Avoid

1. Rhetoric Divorced from Reality

It’s clear by now that Trump’s election strategy was to just throw stuff out there and see how people reacted. “The Wall” was one of those things that got strong support from the group he was appealing to. And so it became a linchpin of his image. Despite the fact that it really just… made no sense.

2. An Unwillingness to Even Consider Compromise

Compromise is not the right solution to every impasse, and simply splitting the difference and meeting in the middle is rarely a useful approach to negotiations of any kind.

Nonetheless, you sometimes need to compromise with others in order to get things done in government. When you have opposing sides, then those from each side may need to give up a little of what they want in order to achieve a bigger victory. This is especially true, of course, when we have a divided government, as we do now, with one party controlling our House of Representatives and another controlling the Senate and the Presidency.

When no one is willing to consider any sort of meaningful compromise, then all we get is gridlock.

3. A Belief that Winning is Everything

Part of our problem now is that we have a President worried about getting reelected two years from now, and Democrats worried about extending their recent victories in the House to the Senate and the Presidency a couple of years down the road.

The result is that we have political leaders more interested in striking the right pose than in actually governing.

For myself, and for most Americans, I think, this just makes us sick of politics and politicians. And this is never more true than when our leaders are willing to shut down our government as a move calculated to win them more votes in the next election.

4. Loyalty Above All

Loyalty to those around you, and to your leaders, is generally a good thing. People need to stick together in order to accomplish anything of value.

But there comes a time when loyalty to principle, loyalty to the people, and loyalty to truth must come before loyalty to party and to current political leaders.

As we pass the 30th day of this government shutdown with no end in sight, that time is certainly here – and yet no one is breaking ranks.

5. Leaders without Leadership

Leadership is something more than just filling a position. Leadership requires independent thought and judgment, and an ability to influence and persuade others.

When we have leaders who make decisions based on poll results, or based on pressure from media pundits, then we have people who are unwilling or unable to exercise true leadership.

6. An Inability to Recognize a Losing Hand

It’s hard to play cards when you have someone at the table who thinks they can win every time, no matter what cards they are holding. The same is true of politics. As songwriter Don Schlitz wrote, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” (And apparently Schlitz knew what he was talking about, since he wrote “The Gambler” in 1976, and kept plugging it until Kenny Rogers had a monster hit with it in 1978.)

7. Politics as Entertainment

When our government is working well, it’s pretty boring stuff. It’s like a freeway – you use it to get from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible. No one spends a lot of time watching it – that’s why you don’t see any bleachers set up alongside the highway.

If you want the interesting version of a roadway, then one exists – it’s called a Demolition Derby. You will find bleachers there. It’s like a freeway, except that the entertainment value has been turned up to 10, and the utility has been turned down to 0.

Over the last decade or so, it seems that many of us have decided that we want to be entertained by our politics. How else explain 24-hour news channels, political talk radio, and a proliferation of media outlets all trying to get our attention, desperately twisting that entertainment knob towards 10, with little or no concern for any social utility?

If we demand maximum entertainment value from our politics, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when we realize we’re watching a demolition derby.

My Advice for Voters

Of course President Trump and the Republicans have made themselves the poster children for all of the warnings above. But Democrats have proven equally susceptible to all of these impulses at times.

But the solutions to these problems, of course, start with us, the voters. We can start today by pledging to take the following actions on a regular basis:

  1. Be skeptical of any leaders who claim the facts are all on their side, and who resort to name-calling to characterize their opposition.
  2. Consult a variety of sources for information and opinions on an issue before reaching your own conclusion.
  3. Stay open to new facts and analysis, and be willing to change your mind.
  4. Avoid extremism on any issue, and respect a need to compromise when it legitimately arises.
  5. Judge your leaders by their results, not by their poses, or by their ability to demean their political opponents.
  6. Reward leaders who can speak sensibly and authentically based on their own reasoning, and avoid those who seem to be simply spouting the party line or reciting words from others without any critical thought of their own.
  7. Invest some reasonable amount of time researching the important issues of the day, and use your entertainment time for sports or music or works of fiction. Don’t mix entertainment with politics.

If you find yourself having difficulty following through on this pledge, then look for triggers in your environment that start you down the slippery slope to unwanted behavior, and either systematically eliminate the triggers, or reprogram your reactions to them.

Published 2019 Jan 21

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