Listening to Each Other Again: President Obama's Warning Against Ideological Dysfunction

Listening to Each Other Again: President Obama's Warning Against Ideological Dysfunction

We do it everyday.

We do it in our workplaces, in our families, between friends, even between frenemies. We talk about things we don't always agree on, work together, and resolve problems. But an absolutely unprecedented level of obstructionism against President Obama by Republicans have made this simple reality a pipe dream in politics.

It's a point President Obama made in his interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday this weekend.

The President spoke about his Supreme Court nominee, emails and Hillary Clinton, response to terrorism, and politics, but all of it wrapped around - in my impression, in the President's reply to Wallace's final question, pointing out that anger is driving a lot of voters to Donald Trump on the Right and Bernie Sanders on the Left. President Obama responded that the recession was so deep that made such an impact that people are still frustrated with it even given the progress he had achieved, and -

The danger both among Republicans and among Democrats, who increasingly just listen to people who already agree with them... Increasingly, what happens is, we don’t hear each other.
— President Obama on Fox News Sunday, 4/10/16

The president went on to give examples of the media polarization. He addressed liberal grievances on health care, specifically the complaint that he had chosen not to push for a single payer system (pointedly addressing, without explicitly naming, Bernie Sanders' key campaign platform). 85% of non-elderly adults, the president reminded us, got their health care through their employer and by and large did not want that changed, making a wholesale reorganization of our healthcare system not just politically unfeasible but more importantly, practically and democratically so.

The president made this point over and over again during the course of his first campaign and the health care reform debate, but hardly anyone from the far ends of the political spectrum cared. It didn't make the cut of sexy red meat political bloodbath, so the point hardly ever made it to the media either.

This is happening now. The loudest political mouths have picked their corners, and no one is coming out to listen. Worse, the credentials, ethics and integrity of the ones that are trying to listen - President Obama chief among them and on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton - are being questioned by those whose only interest is in having a big fight.

Bernie Sanders is being exposed as absolutely clueless about how to accomplish his key campaign promises, including banks, and yet he and his supporters see it fit to not just question Hillary Clinton's progressive credentials but to guard the gates of what it means to be a progressive at all. Those who are opposing President Obama on trade will neither listen to what he has to say about it, nor study the agreement for themselves - whether they come at us from the fringe Left, or the Trump Right.

What we have seen in the past seven years is the fruition of a Right wing movement built upon the idea of political dominion. Almost by definition, that movement has shunned compromise, covered their ears from anyone who has a different policy idea, and shut out effective government. The far Right has built that movement to care only about dogmatic checkboxes, and purifying their party by ridding it of anyone who did not believe their political opponents were wearing the mark of the beast.

That movement only solidified in the wake of the election of the country's first black president when the Republican party's top leaders resolved to oppose anything Obama, even policy initiatives they had previously opposed.

But the far Right wing is not the only faction in American politics that have been growing its strength as a no-compromise, our-way-or-highway force. Much of the Left has done the same thing. The difference, as we have pointed out here on TPV on numerous occasions, is that the ideologue Left has not yet taken over the Democratic party the way the Tea Party Right has taken over the GOP. But make no mistake, they, like the Right, make it difficult for us to hear each other.

But even more than drowning out the voices of reason and compromise, what ideologues are dangerous because they reduce the political reward for compromising in the best interest of public policy and instead its penalties. A lot of damage can be done before people realize that if public policy affecting millions of people can be summed up on a bumper sticker, the problem is not with the sticker. If the political rewards are stacked in favor of getting nothing done while pretending to care rather than in favor of getting something done even if it isn't perfect, politicians - as we are already seeing on the Right - will navigate towards dysfunction.

And that is why we, as citizens, must critically examine our role in that system of rewards. We must erect a standard of finding common ground rather than finding reasons convene cage matches. We cannot say "I wish our leaders would work together" and the moment they do, rile up our bases with a veritable checklist of what is wrong with - rather than comprehensive analysis of - the product.

If we want our leaders to listen to each other, we must reward that behavior.

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