Today’s partisan squabbles are tiresome and unproductive. Republicans are quite sure their approach is wiser and more correct than their opponents. The Democrats are certain they have more compassion and wisdom than the Republicans. Each is fighting the good fight for a superior cause. Each resorts to baser tactics and crueler characterizations of the other party to advance their cause. We descend to a muddy street brawl. It seems quite certain how this must end.
There is an alternative. Rather than squabble endlessly and pointlessly, we might let reality speak. We might get past dogma and listen to experience. Take, for example, the contentious issue of health care and the Affordable Care Act in particular. Rather than have a partisan mob pass it and the opposing mob labor to gut it, what if we identified a handful of principles and tested different applications of them? For example, maybe we decided that our founding principles are these:
1. We would like more Americans to have affordable insurance.
2. We would like citizens to have options.
3. We don’t want a huge bill for taxpayers or the deficit.
I’m sure there are other principles. Imagine that a group of statesmen identified them and an act of Congress invited states to submit proposals that were consistent with the principles. Proposals might be funded and tested. Over time, we could refine our principles and our programs. Over time, we would find better ways of meeting the needs of our citizens. We might find that there are several programs that are consistent with the principles. We might invite states to select the program that fit their values. We might invite innovation rather than contention.
Of course, this would take time, patience and wisdom. It would not be nearly as fun as watching a slopfest of political mud football. But we might make steady progress instead of rocketing the national debt while zigzagging a crazy and unproductive path across history.
Instead of our representatives being gladiators seeking the destruction of their enemies, they could become problem-solvers where creativity, openness and sustained change are prized above partisan purity.
Another example: Our current welfare system is driven more by dogma than experience. Liberals argue for compassion. Conservatives argue for accountability. Our policy is an ugly patchwork of contradictions. Maybe we could identify principles, invite proposals, test programs and make real progress on such challenging problems as caring for the poor without encouraging dependence or ballooning the deficit.
The parties do not have to be enemies. They can be collaborators, each side bringing its valuable worldview. I like the statement of Jonathan Haidt, the brilliant social psychologist, from his book "The Happiness Hypothesis":
"When one side overwhelms the other, the results are likely to be ugly. A society without liberals would be harsh and oppressive to many individuals. A society without conservatives would lose many of the social structures and constraints that ... are so valuable. A good place to look for wisdom, therefore, is where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents. You already know the ideas common on your own side. If you can take off (your) blinders ... you might see some good ideas for the first time."
Imagine a political scene where liberals and conservatives worked together to identify principles and create options, but final decisions are made in the laboratory of life. It would be naïve to believe that science is flawless — that it speaks clearly and honestly with one voice. Yet science is a better arbiter than party dogma and partisan tactics. We might actually create a productive and effective policymaking government.
H. Wallace Goddard is a retired professor of family life (Arkansas, Alabama) and continues to write books and articles on family topics such as marriage and parenting. He and his wife, Nancy, live in Logan, Utah.