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Hey, C'mon, Why Can't Reds And Blues Agree?

by Larry Susskind
August 2009

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Larry Susskind
I was thinking about the reds and the blues. You'd think they'd be able to reach agreement once in a while without bashing each other. But, the more I analyze it, the more I realize that the reds and blues are probably doomed. Some of the time, it's not in one side or the other's interest to reach agreement. They have more to gain by holding out for some extreme proposal, even if it throws them into deadlock. And, often, something or somebody stands in the way. It's hard to have a constructive conversation if there's too much background noise or by-standers are trying to sabotage things. And, finally, I keep forgetting that most of the reds and blues have no relevant negotiation training or consensus building experience.

It's Not In Their Interest to Reach Agreement

Let's say I'm a red, and I want to build something. I need some of the money that's in the shared kitty. (It's not my money, it's our money.) So, I announce, "I want to build one of those." Doesn't matter what reasons I give, before the words are even out of my mouth, some of the blues have lined up against it. They are against it because I'm for it. They're playing to their constituents. They think they will lose face with their constituents if they support something that a red like me might favor. If I try to make an argument "on the merits," rolling out facts to support my claim, they challenge the legitimacy of my data and marshall contrary evidence. The information is really secondary. They've made up their mind that building what I want to build will take resources away from whatever it is they prefer to do. They have different priorities.

When I suggest we meet to work something out, they might agree, but only because they want to convince me to build what they want instead of what I want. If the blues think they can move forward without any support from the reds, they will. Why talk if they can get what they want. If they can't, they'd rather go down in flames than admit that what the reds want makes more sense, especially when the thing we are fighting about is much less important in the long run than maintaining the support of their constituents.

Are there ever issues on which the fundamental interests of reds and blues overlap? You'd think so. But as soon as someone tries to frame a problem in terms of the overlap, someone else will reframe it in partisan terms -- because it is in their individual interest to do so. That's how they can stand out (and claim a leadership role) in the blue or the red community. Even in a time of crisis, when leaders on both sides know that something must be done, the temptation to frame the crisis in partisan terms (and thus force a win-lose confrontation) is overwhelming. Red and blue leaders wont' be leaders for long if they can't rally the troops. The way they do that is to frame every issue (including every crisis) in partisan terms. Reds say it is about individual rights and responsibilities, letting the market operate in unfettered ways, protecting our national identity and hegemony, and above all promoting economic growth. Blues say it is about reinforcing the social contract (fairness and group responsibility), using the mechanisms of government to correct for inevitable market failures, international responsibilities and human rights, and, above all, promoting sustainable development (so that future generations have the same choices we do). Confrontation allows each side to promote its agenda. Getting agreement pales in importance.

Somebody or Something Is Getting In the Way

Reds and blues act as if they are the only ones with something to say. That is so not true. There are whites who pursue their own individual interests and don't care at all about the perpetual battle between reds and blues. This is really hard for reds and blues to accept: whites are playing a different game entirely. For example, there are contractors who donate equally to red and blue causes. They are trying to court favor on both sides. They don't care about the issues that are central to red and blue, they only care about themselves. There are also people who have written off "the whole system." Their lives are miserable and they blame both red and blue. Then, there are global interests who, like the contractors mentioned above, court both red and blue leaders. They are not above surreptitiously making secret deals with one or both sides. Finally, there are those who make a living off the conflict between red and blue -- the chattering class. It's in their interest to turn up the flame on every controversy.

Any time a segment of reds and a segment of blues try to find common ground, they are attacked not only by hardliners on their own side, but by the chattering class. "Reds and Blues Make a Deal!" does not a headline make. You can't sell papers, you can't grab eyeballs and ears with a story about agreement. But, if you can get a red leader to punch out a blue leader, then you've got a story with legs. The chattering class takes no responsibility for educating anyone on the underlying issues (indeed, the presumption is that there is no such thing as education, only propaganda, so pick a side!). It's hard to reach agreement when you are attacked for even contemplating a meeting with the other side. The chattering class demands transparency and accountability because it is in their interest to do so. The notion that confidentiality might be crucial to the early stages of a useful conversation between reds and blues, is so antithetical to the interests of the chattering class, that they have made such exploratory moves almost impossible.

They Don't Have the Knowledge or Skills

Would you put somebody before a judge or jury who doesn't know how the present their arguments in court? Of course not. We'd make sure that they were represented by qualified counsel. Would you throw someone with no diplomatic experience into a high-level peace-making situation? I hope not. They'd get eaten alive. Would you throw someone into a red or blue leadership role who had no formal training in negotiation or consensus building? We do it all the time! Legal, political, administrative, or corporate experience is not necessarily consensus-building experience. There is a science of collaborative problem-solving that is as carefully spelled out as the techniques of political combat that are on display all the time. But, no one has asked that red and blue leaders demonstrate any consensus building competence. In fact, we seem to think that what we need are leader-warriors who will fight the good fight. Is it a surprise, then, that these leaders have no capacity to generate agreements that are in our collective best interest?

One of the most important things that skilled consensus builders know is that the rules of the forum in which joint problem solving takes place are as important as the abilities of the participants. If reds and blues want to reach mutually advantageous agreements that are actually aimed at solving jointly framed problems, they'll need to change the rules that govern when and how they meet. There's no reason they can't suspend the prevailing rules periodically and switch into consensus building mode, but they don't know that. And, they don't know how to operate in such a setting. They'll probably need a neutral mediator (selected jointly) to help them manage the conversation. Imagine, a confidential mediated conversation between reds and blues where nobody could claim victory over the other side. They'd need to conduct such conversations in private with a confidentiality rule in place. Finally, they'd probably need to agree that no agreement would be reached unless and until nearly all the reds and blues involved were in concurrence. No majority rule. No 60% cloture vote.

So, the question is, as a red or blue constituent, would you be willing to reward your representative with your vote if they produced effective bi-partisan solutions to problems
rather than post more wins than losses against the other side? How should we identify the issues we prefer to have red and blue leaders work on in this way? Is there a large enough segment of the population willing to demand that red and blue switch into consensus building mode periodically? How might we trigger such a shift?

Biography


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planningin 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School-- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.

 



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Website: www.lawrencesusskind.com

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