Whatever happened to negotiation and compromise?

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 10, 2005

I am old enough to remember the process of political debate. The process is engaging to watch, as well-informed advocates for positions make their arguments, considering even the smallest nuance of position, and then listen and respond thoughtfully to the other side.

Debates took place in public forums and, most memorably, in the U.S. Senate. Yes, I remember senators actually attending the senate and arguing issues.

For me, as a young man, that was the pinnacle of democracy, the Senate debate. Today, that seems gone forever, as does the very concept of political debate in general.

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In today's U.S. Senate, Senators rarely actually attend, except to vote. Debate takes place in a near empty chamber, attended to mostly by TV cameras. This is a reflection of how the Senate has changed. Senators much more rarely cross the isle now as friends, and rarely come together across party lines on votes at all.

The rare exception last week of the 14 who saved the filibuster or destroyed the up and down vote (depending upon your political perspective) was, I am afraid, just that, a rare exception. I can not help but regret the loss of negotiation in our government and in the chamber that is the Senate. Today senators seem to have their positions on issues pre-defined by party affiliation and political contribution groups we know as "special interests."

Positions rarely are defined by personal ethics or voter preferences. And almost never do we see political ideas changed by the process of argument that persuades one to change position.

In fact, in today's political environment, changing one's position is viewed as weakness, or worse, betrayal. Consider how the Conservatives attacked Senator Voinovich when he voiced concerns over the nomination of John Bolton to the United Nations position of ambassador.

Adding to the demise of negotiation is the political climate of extremism, where the opponent is viewed as not just wrong, but evil. This new element is now framed with the power of the religious right in the political arena.

The additional component of religion in political debate makes the possibility of political debate even more likely to fail, since the nature of debate is compromise and the nature of religion is absolute belief. Where belief exists, compromise becomes impossible.

Perhaps this is why our forefathers saw the importance of the separation of church and state. The arenas simply do not mix well. Can one change religious belief based upon dialogue, debate and compromise? Probably not. Can we run a nation on any set of absolute religious positions? Probably not. At least not and do justice to the diversity of religious convictions that makeup our blended nation.

Whose religious beliefs would we apply? The Fundamentalists? The Buddists? The Catholics? The Agnostics? The Methodists? Whose would satisfy us all?

I long for the return of persuasion in politics, for the balance of issues decided over the best interests of all, for leaders courageous enough to change positions where better ideas can serve us better.

I long for compromise, where no party is perfectly happy, but all can sense the overall good of our community is the better for the compromise. I believe we can do better than the current crop of political demagogues.

Maybe a better crop of demagogues is in the wings, waiting for a stage right or stage left entry.

Finally, I hope for a re-balancing in America of religion and politics, where politics is limited, and isolated, to the public stage, and religion is centered in the middle of family and community.

Each has its fit in America, our history shows us the way.

Jim Crawford is employed at Ohio University and is a partner in Interconnections, LLC, a tri-state strategic planning consultancy. He can be reached at rjim893@msn.com. The views expressed by Dr. Crawford are his and his alone, and do not represent the views of Ohio University or Interconnections, LLC.