“If the Iraqi people as a whole decided today that, in my words now, they love their children more than they hate their neighbor…this could come to a quick conclusion.” That was General Peter Pace (USMC Retired) as Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the height of sectarian violence in Iraq.
What if Americans, in these fractious electoral times, could decide that we love what unites us more than we hate what divides us? Otherwise, no matter who wins in November, they will inherit a culture of relationships so frayed as to make the country almost ungovernable.
Over the past fifty years: divorce is up and marriage is down 50 percent. Fifty percent of children born to those under 30 in 2012 will be to unwed mothers – with poverty rates five times those of married couples. The American Sociological Review reports the number of close friends or confidants is down by a third over the past two decades and the number of people with none has tripled. In business, for the five years prior to the recession of 2008-09, turnover of skilled employees, sales people and managers doubled and according to a 2012 MetLife survey, one in three workers plan to leave their job by the end of the year. Customer defection rates rose 30 percent during the same five-year period and 86 percent of consumers distrust businesses more than they did five years ago.
What divides us is equally on display in the other domains of our lives – religion and politics. The number of religiously unaffiliated has doubled in the past eighteen years as groups considered most extreme and outspoken – conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews, radical Islamists, and activists atheists – have become more prominent. In politics 49 percent of voters self-identify themselves as ideologically extreme compared to 29 percent in 1972. Meanwhile, defections from political parties doubled in the past 50 years with 40 percent now calling themselves independent. In the Bush and Obama administrations the gap between how the opposition party vs. same-party view presidential performance reached 70 percent – more than double the 30 percent average fifty years ago.
The number, strength and duration of these foundational relationships of home, work, faith and politics are central to a functioning society and the ability of leaders to lead. When they decline, so does society.
Our biggest risk going into the election of 2012 is not unemployment, the deficit, or healthcare. The bigger underlying risk is our relational unraveling. Standard & Poor’s downgrading of our U.S. credit rating was driven by major concern that growing political polarization would impede policymakers’ ability to act proactively to get our finances in order. The cumulative effects of our relational collapse represents the most costly and destructive trend that threatens our society. We cannot build the lives we want and the society we need on the back of crumbling relationships.
An election is a time set aside for the electorate to step back and decide what it intends for the future of the country. The vote-count translates disagreement over which candidate best personifies that direction into collective decisions and thus direction. Elections matter.
Yet, whoever wins the congressional and especially the presidential election of 2012 is likely to face an electorate evenly and highly divided with growing disdain for the other side. Research by Pew finds that our level of partisan disagreement on actual issues (e.g., when life begins vs. your stance on abortion) has increased eight percentage points since 1987 but the number who have self-identified themselves as extreme has moved from 29 percent to 49 percent (since 1972). We have come to greatly magnify our differences and to increasingly join a like-minded warring tribe. While the fight grabs the headlines of a drama-hungry media, quietly growing members of society are leaving tribes all together. Fight meet flight.
This combination of stakeholders determined to punish any one with the slightest hint of working with the enemy tribe and those who have fled this vitriolic cabal makes governing very hard. Democracy and society do not work well when shrinking numbers of those in the fight run things and growing ranks of the repelled are missing-in-action.
Moderation is not abdication and hate is not an ideology. In today’s society, there is no contempt like that of the extremist toward those who are moderate. As Sam Harris has concluded, extremists view moderates as nothing more than “failed fundamentalist.” In the overheated partisan culture of 2012 even a hint of compromise is tantamount to political suicide. The confusion is that one can be passionate about belief and still see the virtue of compromise. It is ironic that President George W. Bush campaigned on “compassionate conservatism” and President Obama’s most powerful campaign line in the 2008 campaign was “there are no red states or blue states, only the United States.” Interestingly, one of Paul Ryan’s appeals as a VP candidate is that while seen as passionately conservative, he is not seen as a “hater” unable to work constructively with the opposition.
A society that becomes so tribal as to be inoculated against new information and thus influence – is destined to lose out in a changing world. The selfish desire invested in being right and in the “right” tribe, trumps the desire to seek truth. As the battle rages, the wounds mount. That old adage applies: Wounded people wound people, creating hardened targets for change. When winning becomes secondary to defeating, everyone loses. John Gottman, renowned relationship guru, singles out contempt – trying to speak from a higher level while attempting to push another down to a lower level – as the most potent force in killing relationships.
It is time to distinguish between moderate ideology and constructive moderation to get half a loaf where no loaf is killing us. Democracy and capitalism work because of their incredible ability to tap value that flows from differences. Fight for what you believe, but don’t wimp-out to partisan pressures when the heavy lifting of constructive compromise is required.
Tony Blair once said the simple way to take measure of a country is to look at how many want in, and how many want to get out. Our hope lies in stopping this costly relational hemorrhage by making entry back into relationship our highest aim – it is a worthy and needed part of any ideology.
Robert Hall is a noted author, consultant, and speaker on relationships. He is the author of This Land of Strangers: The Relationship Crisis That Imperils Home, Work, Politics and Faith.www.RobertEHall.com.