Conservatives and liberals seem to live in different worlds. You would think each side's goal was to eliminate the other. Yet, if conservatives and liberals would learn the lessons of diversity training, they might discover an ability to solve problems in ways that neither side could conceive alone.
Participants in diversity training learn the value of incorporating people of varied backgrounds into the workforce. Teams composed of such workers, the theory goes, consider more possibilities when making decisions than do homogeneous teams. The result is more creative and effective problem solving.
Problem solving, not posturing, should be the focus of politics. This has not been the case for far too long. Instead, labels and pledges have controlled our political process. Liberals and conservatives alike pat themselves on the back for upholding doctrine while major issues remain unsolved.
Imagine if our politicians experienced a major paradigm shift: perceiving their opponents’ perspectives as complementary instead of divisive.
Our representatives may have obtained a superficial level of diversity. However, a willingness to transcend labels and stereotypes to achieve a greater good is missing. That is the most important element of diversity, yet our political process does the opposite. Candidates pander to their "base," be it liberal or conservative, to get elected, then adhere to talking points to keep their jobs.
The result de-humanizes both supporters and candidates, as in the following examples.
1. In the 2012 GOP primary debates, candidates pandered to spectators who applauded Texas Governor Rick Perry's application of the death penalty and shouted "Let him die!" when Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was asked how to handle an uninsured emergency room visitor.
2. Now recall candidate Obama's description of Pennsylvania workers during an April 6, 2008 fundraiser in San Francisco:
"And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
In other words, both liberals and conservatives are guilty of dehumanizing behavior. That's a big reason why they need each other: to guard against the worst parts of themselves.
If they'd only realize that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, pledges might give way to dialogue. Gridlock might become action.
For example, Republicans' loyalty to the Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge has stifled many deficit-cutting initiatives that combine spending cuts with targeted tax increases. There's nothing wrong with being concerned with a new idea's tax implications. In fact, the financial implications of new ideas have been ignored for far too long. However, there are costs and benefits to every plan.
Ignoring ideas whose benefits exceed their costs because they incorporate a tax increase can stifle creativity, even threaten our long-term standard of living.
Take the American Jobs Act, for example. Proponents argued that it would create jobs in part by financing much-needed repairs to America's infrastructure, something both sides agree is necessary. The spending is even financed by an overall deficit reduction plan. However, because that plan involves targeted tax increases, Republicans blocked the legislation and our infrastructure issues continue.
Likewise, Democrats often treat Social Security and Medicare as sacred cows. Again, there's nothing wrong with providing retirees with a safety net. However, there's also nothing wrong with admitting that life expectancy has increased since Social Security started and that declining population growth means fewer payers support each recipient.
In this case, there's a double-barreled challenge of controlling costs while keeping enough jobs in the workforce to make a higher retirement age economically viable.
A Paul Ryan-like voucher system may or may not be the answer, at least for Medicare, to cure our entitlement system's ills. However, it's time for counter-proposals, not denunciation. It's time to get the best ideas each side can offer, put them together, and derive solutions.
Compromise is how we avoid the triumph of extremism in America. However, it requires that each side listen to its opposition with an open mind.
Let's hope the fiscal cliff settlement, in which Republicans agreed to tax hikes for the wealthy while Democrats agreed to raise the income floor to $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples, represents a step in the right direction.
There are issues, of course where compromise is more difficult. These center on personal lifestyle choices such as contraception, gay marriage, abortion and other questions where deep-seated religious beliefs intrude upon public policy.
However, today's major questions focus on dollars and cents. These questions focus on how we can sustain a government that continues to keep its commitments to retirees, students and the disadvantaged while retaining a prominent role in the world. They seek solutions to maintain the quality of our health system, national infrastructure and public education without breaking the bank.
Areas like these are where liberals and conservatives have more in common than they know. They often disagree not on ultimate goals, but in methods of implementation. These are the instances where conservatives and liberals need each other to complete each other's reasoning and make this country sustainable not just for those living now, but also for future generations.