As we all watch our dysfunctional Congress fail to carry out its most basic duty of passing a budget year after year, and we see divisive political battles in states like Wisconsin, where police arrest peacefully singing protestors resulting in the filing of 15,000 complaints against the Capitol police, it is worth considering whether both sides of the political aisle’s current strategy of vilifying each other achieves the goals they seek. Cynics who believe that politics is all about power and has little to with actual policy may believe that burning bridges with the other side is the best way to fire up their loyal troops.
But for those who seek genuine, long-term systemic change to improve our society, whether on a local, state or national level, burning bridges through name-calling, personal insults and other forms of vilification, will at best, provide short-term emotional satisfaction, and short-term political victories. Perhaps the worst case example of name calling is through comparing politicians to Hitler or Nazis. Remarkably, this unfortunate pattern exists on both sides of the aisle, with the left making absurd comparisons between President George W. Bush and Hitler, and the right using the same vilification against President Obama.
Long term systems change happens when society at large believes it should happen and politicians are convinced that blocking such change will result in their loss of power. Indeed, the opposite is also true. Do those who invoke the ultimate Hitler insult against a sitting President, or any other politician in power, actually believe that they can work with supporters of the sitting President effectively? In addition to the fact that such absurd comparisons insult the memories of the millions slaughtered by Hitler, they also ensure that partisan sniping continues and substantive progress on policy grinds to a halt.
For too many, when they disagree with whomever is in power at the time, they believe that they must oppose all that they stand for and use whatever arguments and tactics, no matter how absurd, to oppose that political leader. For all the appropriate opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on public employee unions, suggesting a comparison to Hitler is not only absurd, but makes it impossible to work with him and his allies.
Thus, in my own work, I have spent my entire career working with politicians on both sides of the aisle. I have avoided joining any political parties, which has eased my ability to work with whomever is in power. While I certainly agree with some political leaders more than others, and vote for those whose policies I support, I studiously avoid personal attacks and seek to find common ground with whomever is in power while avoiding burning bridges with those out of power. The simple truth is that power is always transitory and good advocates know that they always want to be able to influence those in power.
So what should an advocate do when faced with political leadership that generally stands for views the advocate opposes?
- First, by all means, the advocate should clearly state opposing views, but those views should be articulated intelligently and respectfully, without burning bridges.
- Second, seek common ground on issues that the advocate and the political leadership both support. For example, along with many other advocates, I was able to work with both Republican and Democratic leadership during the highly divisive 2011-12 legislative session and obtain Gov. Walker’s signature on Act 125, which passed the legislature unanimously and now protects Wisconsin school children from inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.
This picture shows how advocates who refuse to burn bridges can work with both sides of the aisle for the common good as the bill’s lead sponsors Democratic Sen. Julie Lassa and Republican Sen. Luther Olsen join me and other advocates to applaud Gov. Walker as he signed Act 125 into law to protect vulnerable children.