Where are the Collaborative Politicians?

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Don Saposnek PhD

Today’s politicians have been forced to polarize; they must see themselves as being (or having to be) viewed as “all-good,” while their opponents have to be viewed as “all-bad.” The recent presidential debates seem to have strengthened this perception. But this problem isn’t just in the Presidential race.

When Don Saposnek and I wrote our recent book, Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce, we pointed out that today’s Senators no longer eat lunch together in the Senate dining room. Instead, they eat with their own party members in a separate caucus, mostly talking about how they are going to deal with members of the other party.

Without eating and engaging in other social activities together, today’s politicians are unlikely to see, understand or even care about each other’s point of view. As one political staffer said two years ago: “Why would they want to have lunch together when they hate each other?” (Packer, G. The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate, The New Yorker, August 9, 2010.)

The middle ground is disappearing from politics in the United States. This has been a growing trend in the last few years, but it seems to have picked up speed in the most recent election cycle. Yet, without the middle, or moderates, there is no one to assist in making the compromises that makes politics work.

A recent analysis showed that the most liberal Republican in Congress is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. That means that there is no overlap between the parties anymore. This may mean that there will be no more joint Democrat and Republican bills that will be submitted to the Senate or House of Representatives. In years past, we have seen successful joint efforts, like the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, more commonly known as the McCain-Feingold law (jointly sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Russ Feingold), which temporarily limited campaign funding, until the U.S. Supreme Court lifted those restrictions in the Citizens United case in 2010. In the past, we also saw collaborations – and even friendships – between Senators, such as Ted Kennedy (Democrat of Massachusetts) and Orrin Hatch (Republican of Utah). Are those days completely gone?

Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said that he believes moderates can still bring people together, but it’s not going to happen naturally or by accident…we have to work at it…each individual member of congress has to take on personal responsibility…he has to keep the poison out of the water to avoid the kind of demonization that happens when people debate issues (Associated Press, October 15, 2012).

Last week, a New York Times article explained that many moderates are leaving Congress by not running for re-election this year – both Republican moderates and Democratic moderates. This will eliminate many of the “consensus builders” ( In Congress, a Shrinking Pool of Moderates, The New York Times , by Jennifer Steinhauer, published October 8, 2012).  The article cites political scientists who report that the House of Representatives is “more polarized than at any time in the last century.”

For the past 30 years, we have been professional family mediators, and we know that high-conflict divorce cases have a devastating impact on the children, as well as on both parents and many other family members and friends. Over the past ten years, there has been an increasing interest in collaborative practice for family law professionals, including lawyers, counselors, mediators and others. Because we have seen what “high-conflict” relationships turn into over time, we know about the clear need for collaboration in all relationships. Yet, it appears that our politicians and others involved in influencing elections are missing this larger reality: You can’t really win when you can’t work together. Instead, everybody (especially the voters) lose.

In today’s politics, there is the fantasy of victory for those who believe they are the sole owners of the truth and own the one right way to the future. This is a narcissistic view of the world that is not real and does not work. For anyone to have success in politics – or any other organizational effort – they must be able to listen to the viewpoints of others, respect different points of view, and successfully incorporate them into their proposals and plans. The view of many of today’s politicians is victory without compromise or collaboration. This is simply a fantasy that cannot succeed.

Just look at the children of today’s high-conflict divorces, if you’re not sure. They are alienated, depressed and exposed to never-ending conflict – even ten and twenty years past their parents’ divorce. The solution to high-conflict is not to have big winners and big losers. The solution is to learn how to collaborate to solve problems, so that conflicts are actually resolved, and a community and the long-term relationships within it survive when the conflict is over.

Think twice before you vote. Avoid voting for the politicians with “all the right answers,” and look instead for the politicians that can play well with others – that can collaborate for the benefit of our nation, not just for themselves, their own egos and a small group of friends. It’s up to us, because, on their own, high-conflict politicians can’t seem to stop themselves.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

About Don Saposnek Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D. is a clinical-child psychologist, child custody mediator and family therapist in private practice for over 40 years, and is a national and international trainer of mediation and child development.  For the past 35 years, he has been teaching on the psychology faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and is Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution.  He is the author of the classic book, Mediating Child Custody Disputes and has published extensively in the professional literature on child custody and child psychology.  He serves on the editorial boards of the Family Court Review and Conflict Resolution Quarterly journals and is the editor of the international Academy of Professional Family Mediators’ The Professional Family Mediator.  As director of Family Mediation Service of Santa Cruz, he managed the family court services for 17 years and has mediated nearly 5,000 child custody disputes in both the public and private sectors since 1977.  For more information about Don Saposnek, please visit: www.mediate.com/dsaposnek

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