A few months back, a dialogue occurred on one of the dispute resolution list servers. A contributor, in his comments, made an allusion to an assumption that is possibly prevalent among many in the dispute resolution field. The question, more than likely posed half seriously, was: Why are there no Republicans in the dispute resolution field? The underlying assumption of the question is that people with conservative, or right-leaning political philosophies are not mediators. On its surface, the question is silly. Most of us have surely worked with neutrals who espouse conservative political philosophies, more than likely there are many more among us and we don’t know it.
The underlying question, however, is serious: Does the alternative dispute resolution field seemingly dominated by left-leaning liberals and moderates from the west and northeast reserve room for practitioners of more diverse political philosophies, i.e., conservatives? Or has the field in fact forced conservative practitioners into a closet? It is also fair to ask: If there are not many politically conservative practitioners in the field, why not, and, if there are, why don’t we know? And, finally, what was the impetus for the original question? There is a fundamental problem in the inability of neutrals to achieve success in bringing parties to the table because there is little trust among some stakeholders that the neutral brings balance and the absence of political bias to the table. If there is something about conservative political ideology that detracts people from the field as practitioners, it may prove useful to explore why. Consideration of those questions is particularly relevant in the area of public policy dispute resolution, especially given the not new, but ever-deepening divisions within the political realm.
Consensus building, which is predicated on engaging people with a diverse range of viewpoints to reach common ground solutions, presents an opportunity to narrow and bridge those divisions. But the point of this brief commentary is not to make a case for the need and value of collaborative approaches to public policy decisions, but rather, it is to provide an opportunity for the field to reflect on how clearly it views another, less-frequently discussed type of diversity, and affirm the value of political diversity.
Particularly in the public policy field, the issue of political diversity is important for several reasons: First, impartiality for neutrals working in public policy, among other things, means being nonpartisan, but not apolitical. Effectiveness in the public policy arena, in fact, relies on neutral’s who possess a significant degree of political acumen. Furthermore, practitioners need familiarity with typical sources of conflict in the specific policy arena, such as the nature and extent of dissimilar political beliefs. Experience with and access to the relevant political decision-making processes also are vital to the successful outcome of collaborative efforts. Finally, political diversity is necessary in order to create the credibility of neutrals within diverse groups of stakeholders.
Arguably mediation, consensus building and other collaborative processes are not inherently partisan and they do not require neutrals to bend in any particular political direction, though in some cases perhaps it might add value. Yet, stakeholders with strong political ideologies (liberal or conservative) often view collaboration as suspect. Why? Is it the process, the neutrals, both or for some other reason? The questions imply that for public policy neutrals to be effective it is ill-advised for them to naïvely attempt to remove themselves from the political fray for the sake of political purity. Public policy work is political.
Elevating the decision-making process above mere partisanship is extremely important. It is imperative, nevertheless, that in doing so neutrals remain impartial. Yet, it is vital that neutrals take heed of the predictable degree of partisanship in public policy decision making, which is positional, inflexible and oppositional, as a barometer to gauge the pressure partisanship bears on the decision-making process. At the same time, neutrals must also view politics, which focuses on power, authority and influence, as a thermometer that measures the intensity of issues, interests and involvement in consensus building. For obvious reasons, failure to remain impartial can taint the process, however, failure to attend to the politics renders the work irrelevant.
Now back to the original question. Frankly, is it possible these days to tell a Democrat from a Republican? And, if the goal is to help people find common ground and not over-emphasize their differences, does it really help? Further, if the goal of the field also is to add value to public processes, there is a need to appreciate how the public perceives the politics of alternative dispute resolution practitioners as well the potential influence practitioners can wield on the direction of public processes.