Reframing our contentious conversations

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

The Culture War is gearing up for its next mud-wrestling match, otherwise known as the Congressional mid-terms in November. This election is pivotal because it will determine whether the do-nothings or the do-somethings have the upper hand for the foreseeable future — which will have very real consequences for the rest of us. Since gridlock hasn't worked out very well, I would think the electorate would want the do-somethings to get the upper hand — so we can, you know, get some things done.

I should point out that the "do-nothings" aren't lazy or inactive. They work very, very hard to make sure that government doesn't do anything (because they believe that pretty much anything the government does is bad for the country). You could say their motto is, "Much ado about nothing." 

The "do-somethings," on the other hand, would like to get things done (because when you do nothing, the problems tend to fester), but they often get nowhere because the do-nothings are so good at frustrating their forward progress. It's like an NFL playoff game in which a good offense (with a weak defense) plays a great defense (with virtually no offense). The results tend to be pretty boring to watch, which is roughly where we are as a nation at this point — stuck in the mud at the 50-yard line.

While all of this is (not) going on, the rest of us wrangle about it in our personal conversations, which also usually go nowhere and sometimes lead to emotional outbursts and hard feelings. Two of my friends (who don't know each other) engaged in a heated email exchange recently about one of my columns, which is why this has been on my mind.

So I pose the question: Are you more of a free-market person or more of a good-government person? Maybe a better question is: Are you an "either/or" person or a "both/and" person? Your answer determines whether dialogue is even possible.

For too long, our polarized nation has been characterized as an unbridgeable disagreement: those who think government is the problem (and the free market is the answer) vs. those who think government is the answer (and the free market is the problem).

The do-nothings, meanwhile, aided by the media, continue to characterize each election as a choice between either the free market or government.

Polarization results from this "either/or" view of the world. The cure is "both/and." To illustrate this, I've been using the "glass half empty/half full" dichotomy — which isn't a dichotomy at all in the both/and world because, as should be obvious, the glass is half empty and half full. When you can see both, your parameters widen and suddenly much more is possible. You can celebrate the full half while working hard to fill the other half.

If you live in the either/or world, on the other hand, you're ignoring half of life. Everything is black or white, us or them, victory or defeat, winners or losers, my way or the highway.

In the world of do-nothing extremism, the glass is either full to overflowing (and trickling down to the 90 percent, thanks to a minimally regulated free market) or it's completely empty (due to an overreliance on an excessively intrusive, socialist-style government). The free market can do no wrong. The government can do no right. When government tries to do something to help the average American (e.g. affordable health care), they actively work to sabotage it. And since the political game rules favor obstructionism, they often get their way.

If the do-nothings lived in the both/and world, however, they could make a far more compelling campaign pitch: 

"We believe in government, but when government gets too big, it becomes inefficient and wasteful and that's good for no one. We need to do our best to make government as efficient and effective as possible so it serves people well. We know the free market can't solve all our problems, so government has a role to play and part of that is protecting Americans from the occasional excesses and recklessness of the free market. We just want to make sure government plays its role without depressing the economic engine. Elect us and we'll work to maintain a healthy balance between the two." 

This November, that's the position we should all be voting for. But if you do, you'll be voting a straight do-something ticket because they're the only ones making this argument. Wandering in the political wilderness for 35 years has a way of clarifying a party's thinking. Being in the ideological catbird's seat for 35 years, on the other hand, leads to some pretty self-defeating, counterproductive thinking: 

"Government doesn't work. Send me to Washington and I'll prove it!"

As for the rest of us, until November — for your own peace of mind — remember that dialogue is only possible when both sides frame the discussion with "both/and." It's not free market or government. It's free market and government, love and marriage, horse and carriage, you can't have one without the other.

I have a friend who describes himself as a "free-market socialist." He says the free market is great for juicing the economy but hopeless at distributing the generated wealth. For that, he says, we need good government.

Once both sides acknowledge that it's "both/and," we can talk, hopefully with civility, about how free the free market should be without creating dangerous economic inequality and how involved government should be without suffocating prosperity. It's a fine balance, a creative tension, and a much more constructive conversation.

This November, vote for the candidates who believe in both the free market and government and who are wary of the excesses of both.

We'll all be better off for it.

Both them and us.


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