To personally experience the issues of polarization discussed throughout this course, my class split into groups of five with the goal of agreeing on a general solution to reduce gun violence in the United States. The experiment greatly eroded my confidence in democracy.
My group, reduced to three members, settled on a “It’s so crazy it just might work!” solution that I found from the Brookings Institute. For a few class periods, we spent 30 minutes discussing and throwing around strategies and developing research plans for the week between class meetings. It took until our final class, when we were scheduled to spend 2 hours on the exercise, for my group to make any progress. Since we eventually accepted my proposal unanimously, I put together a little playbook, an Art of the Compromise (?).
- Give as little detail as possible. More details are more attack points for the opposition. Rather than build a good defense, simply throw the net away.
- Run down the clock. People are far more willing to debate and fight when they have weeks left. When the professor says that you’ve got 30 minutes, suddenly everyone is more compliant. If you followed Point 1, now people are desperate and see that you’ve got an idea not yet picked apart.
- Find the easiest path to a majority. This is simplest if you’re not an ideologue. In a group of five, if two people are thinking similarly, join them!
In my case, I waited until the last day to put forth an idea. Another guy had prepared a page proposal with several ideas and gave it to use a week beforehand. Our other group member and I spent about an hour eviscerating it. As time ran out, we only had the two ideas and needed to choose. The third member had some libertarian tendencies, and as a free market liberal type myself, I sold my plan as a free market solution.
In reality, the game was over once the two other members couldn’t make it to class. If you watch Survivor, you’ve seen my strategy play out time and time again. There’s a clear majority going into an episode, so the producers spend an hour convincing you that some last-minute plan or strategy is bubbling that could change everything. Then Jeff Probst reads the votes, and even your friend whom you’re desperately trying to convince to like the show and hasn’t seen it before would’ve guessed the outcome.
Of course, that doesn’t make for compromise, and in a previous blog post of mine, I even criticized viewing politics like sports or games. Unfortunately, that analogy, as I’ve come to realize, is uncomfortably accurate.
One facet of this is that sports are highly personal. I have never played for the Washington Capitals, yet I say “we” whenever I refer to them as a pronoun. In our exercise, policies became personal. After we spent an hour heavily criticizing a group member’s proposal, it started to feel like we had attacked the actual person. Additionally, people want to have influence and have other people see them as smart or charismatic, along other similar positive qualities. To me, this explains the greatest conundrum of the exercise.
The group, according to my own tactical playbook, didn’t need to compromise. Three of us had moderate liberal views, one was somewhat libertarian, and the fifth wanted to ban guns completely. The moderates should have won immediately. Instead, the moderates quickly fractured ourselves by trying to make ourselves the most heard and important, striking down other moderate’s proposals. The game wasn’t about reaching a compromise. It was about reaching my compromise.
In this aspect of the game, we had a major advantage over members of Congress: we were college students answerable only to ourselves and without stakes. On the other hand, 535 members of Congress wake up every morning, look at the mirror, and say, “Good morning Mr. (or Madame) President.” I struggled to see how Congress could address the same issue but requiring extremely complex legislation, accounting for the effects on 300,000,000 people, ensuring constitutionality, and securing the president’s signature. However, I have come to realize that a solution is provided: accountability.
Elected officials have an accountability mechanism. My group didn’t. Regardless of the idea ultimately accepted, no group member’s life changed. Politicians, conversely, risk their jobs and ambitions. Essentially, I circled back to my pre-experiment faith and confidence in democracy and voters. Still, I’m not the optimist that I was a few months ago, so to buoy my American spirit, I tried to develop a new playbook conducive to compromise.
- Define the problem. We tried this early on but debated the wrong thought. We focused on types of gun violence. We should have realized that, “How do we stop gun violence?” couldn’t have been the issue because otherwise the same solution should have come from each of us. The question was, “How do we stop gun violence while respecting people’s rights?” That is where controversy came from. Figuring out rights was the actual key.
- Take steps and not leaps. Whenever a proposal came up, we immediately targeted the gun violence that it wouldn’t solve. We rarely saw what it would stop. Gun violence will never stop completely, and simply reducing it is important and valuable.
- Stay self-aware. Realize when you’re being too loud or unreasonable. Understand your own deeper motivations. Listen to others how you hope that they’re listening to you.
Those three points could be idealistic or completely useless, but we have forgotten that our democracy is an experiment. As we watch debates in Congress and experience political conflict in our personal lives, we should always draw conclusions, try new things, and be ready to update and revise our playbooks.