Biting Our Collective Nails

Our leaders are being irrational. Once again Americans are approaching a “fiscal cliff” and we’re waiting to see if Congress and the White House will reach a compromise that prevents another recession. I’m not sure if this irrationality is “unintentional” or if it’s being used as a strategy in the game of chicken between Democrats and Republicans. In one version of that game, two drivers speed toward each other and certain mutual destruction, and the one who swerves to avoid collision at the last minute is considered a coward. It can be smart (even rational) for one player to signal that he is “crazy” enough not to change direction, so that the other player will. But in our case these drivers have millions of people in the cars with them, so-called fiscal hostages.

English: Two Knights Jousting Deutsch: Ritterl...

English: Two Knights Jousting Deutsch: Ritterlicher Turnier-Zweikampf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Political scientists have used this game to explain nuclear “brinkmanship” during the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it also applies to the neglected and disparaged art of political compromise–especially when a serious deadline looms. I came across an NPR interview from this spring that at least helps explain why this has become such a problem for us in America. In this brief story, Steve Inskeep is talking with social scientist Shankar Vedantam about how aspects of American culture hinder compromise. Our culture is individualistic, so we tend to see our own actions in context and the actions of others as coming from their disposition (the fundamental attribution error). As in, “I had to do something questionable because I had no choice in those circumstances, but the other guy’s bad behavior comes from his poor character.” According to this argument, I can rationalize my own compromise to myself, but I’ll see someone else’s as a sign of a lack of principles.

Because compromise requires us to change our minds about what we need or are willing to live with, this presents a problem for politicians. Since Americans tend to “believe that consistency and the ability to hold firm is a core trait of leadership,” we do not like it when our leaders change their minds, says Vedantam. I suppose this is why we insult politicians who change their position on an issue, saying they’re “flip-flopping” or waffling. During the presidential campaign, someone even coined the term “fliplash” when speaking about Romney. But there is a difference between changing one’s mind on something once, for good reason, and repeatedly changing one’s position in order to please different listeners, as Romney was accused of doing.

Don’t we consider it a sign of “being a big person” when someone can admit that they were wrong about something? Or when they admit that they have come to see things in a new light after learning from experience, or from the experience of others? Don’t we call people unreasonable when they cling to their positions, despite clear evidence that there might be a better way?

We can and should blame our leaders who behave this way, but we should also consider our own contribution to the problem. What are the drivers playing chicken supposed to do when passenger-voters are screaming at them not to be the first to “blink”? Think about how Republican voters will react if their senators or representatives—many of whom have signed Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”—agree to Obama’s call for ending certain tax cuts for the wealthy?

Wherever it comes from, this refusal to budge  is irrational, in the sense that it won’t get us where we want to go as a country.

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