Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Democracies Surface Conflict

Roger Fisher died a few weeks ago. I wonder what he would have thought of today’s election.

Fisher wrote (with varying co-authors) Getting to Yes which pioneered the concepts of principled negotiation. The idea is simple: negotiations should lead to collaboration and compromise. Both sides should have a stake in the solution. One side shouldn’t have to “give in”. It shouldn’t be winner take all.

Fisher also pointed out that democracies surface dissension and conflict. In the introduction to the 3rd edition, Fisher argues, “Democracies surface rather than suppress conflict, which is why democracies often seem so quarrelsome and turbulent when compared with more authoritarian regimes. … The goal cannot and should not be to eliminate conflict. Conflict is an inevitable — and useful — part of life. It often leads to change and generates insight. … And it lies at the heart of the democratic process, where the best decisions result not from  superficial consensus but from exploring different points of view and searching for creative solutions. Strange as it may seem, the world needs more conflict not less.”

We have a lot of dissension in America today. That doesn’t bother me. We should disagree. What disheartened me about the recent campaigns were the attempts to invalidate each other: “If you don’t agree with me, you’re not a real American.”  “The Founding Fathers said X. If you don’t agree with my interpretation of what they said, you’re unAmerican.”

To me, statements like these are truly unAmerican. People who call others unAmerican are not trying to reason with the opposition or even to argue a point. They’re trying to suppress or eliminate the opposition. The argument goes like this, “If you’re not a real American, you have no standing. We don’t need to consider your views. You don’t count. We’ll do what we want. You’re nobody.” It’s insulting and demeaning to invalidate a fellow American. The American Dream says we all count.

The Founding Fathers said a lot of different things but what they created is a system that requires collaboration and compromise. The system of checks and balances actually works, except in the face of intransigence. As numerous historians have pointed out, the genius of the American system is our ability to compromise.

I’m not particularly loyal to either political party but I am loyal to the process. I like to argue because I think it’s the best way to reach agreement. I’m worried that we’re losing not just the ability to compromise but also the desire. That would be a tragedy. So, no matter who wins today, I hope we can spend less time invalidating each other and more time getting to yes.

(You can find Roger Fisher’s obituary here. You can find Getting to Yes here.)

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