Up to now, the story of how liberals and conservatives engage in political discourse and problem solving has been marked by polarization, with questionable outcomes. Each side pushes its own agenda, thinking it has the answers to all the problems.
The question is whether this story has served us well? We face mounting problems, including the debt crisis, unemployment, environmental issues, energy dependency, food and water shortages, terrorism, war, and many others, which some have said will eventually lead to a perfect storm, if it hasn’t happened already. It becomes ever more doubtful that we can solve these problems within the context of our polarized, divisive mindset, which has lead to much of the present paralysis in Washington and has perhaps contributed to the problems.
The Energy Debate
Take for example the issue of energy. Both sides agree that we need to become energy independent. However, each side pushes for its own agenda, while disagreeing on an effective, long-range strategy to become energy independent.
In the energy debate, the main dividing line has been between the liberal concern for the environment and conservative concern for the economy.
Liberals want us to be weaned off of our dependency for petroleum, nuclear, coal, and other energy sources that pollute the environment and are limited in supply, to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources that support the environment, like solar, wind, and geothermal. They would like to see such a shift to cleaner energy sources done within a relatively short time frame.
They push for an increase in government funding and programs, which will support this endeavor, and are willing to tolerate higher energy prices and perhaps even some rationing as temporary measures during the transition.
On the other hand, conservatives want to exploit the conventional energy sources that already exist in our country. They feel that we can make a transition to energy independence much quicker if we invest in conventional energy, since it is already proven and economical. They argue that this approach will minimize the risk toward higher energy prices and rationing.
Conservatives believe that, perhaps some investment in alternative energy mightbe a good idea, but it will take years to develop it into a reliable and economical source to meet our growing energy needs. In fact, they argue, alternative energy will most likely never completely replace conventional sources, but supplement it.
Each side pushes forth its own agenda, without giving much thought to the other side’s merits or concerns. And if both sides did decide to work together, we learn from history that the likely outcome would be a middle of the road compromise, which lacked the necessary punch, while pleasing no one, except perhaps the special interests.
In fact, the debate on energy independence has been going on in one form or another, since at least the energy crisis of 1973. The ongoing debate reflects the story, previously mentioned, as to how each side pushes for its own agenda, without giving much, if any, consideration toward that of the other side. And in the end, with few exceptions, our problems never really get solved, but linger or incarnate into “new” problems. It’s apparent that this story has not served us well and is no match for the mounting issues we face.
What if we could change our story, the way in which we solve problems, from one of polarization and divisiveness to one of collaboration and synergy? In fact, is that possible? I believe it is.
I would like to introduce the idea of the Symphonic Solution. A Symphonic Solution is a meeting of the minds between liberals and conservatives on a particular issue. However, it does not limit its choices to the middle range of the political spectrum, as seen in middle of the road compromises, but is open to ideas across the entire board.
A musical symphony, or almost any melody for that matter, would be pretty blasé if its notes were limited to the middle range of the scale. A good symphony requires notes carefully taken along the entire musical scale.
A Symphonic Solution could be characterized as an effective plan, which takes into account the main values and concerns of both sides.
When both sides work together constructively for solutions and feel that their voices have been heard and accounted for, they will likely come up with more options, including innovative ones. Both sides also will more likely support the plan in the long run.
The old band-aid measures and watered down compromises that passed for solutions will give way to fresh, creative approaches, which result from a synergy of both sides working together.
It doesn’t mean there will be total agreement on every point. There will still be disagreements, which is natural in our diverse society.
So, returning to our example of the energy issue, how might the two sides work toward a Symphonic Solution for energy independence?
Such a solution would need to address the main values and concerns of both sides. It would have to take into account the liberal values and concerns for clean, renewable energy, which would have low impact on the environment, like pollution. The solution would also have to account for the conservative values and concerns for reliable energy sources, which are both cost effective and affordable.
Coming up with a Symphonic Solution for energy independence, or for that matter, any issue, will require innovative ideas, creativity, and a spirit of working together, and good will. We have a choice. We can continue with the current story of political polarization, paralysis, and ineffective solutions. Or we can change our story to collaboration, synergy, and effective solutions, which have a much better chance of meeting the challenges of mounting problems. The choice will take courage and require a shift in our thinking in how we work together to solve problems.
Mark Goodkin is publisher of Conversational Shift, a website devoted to helping people make the shift from polarized political discourse to one of civil discourse and synergistic solutions. He also publishes San Diego Coast Life, an online guide for locals and visitors to San Diego. He has been a website designer and content developer since 1998 and graphic artist since 1994. In the late 1980s, he worked as a publishing assistant for the Committee for a Free Afghanistan, in Washington DC. and assistant to the Senior Advisor to High Frontier, Inc., in Arlington VA. Mark Goodkin holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication Design from the School of Visual Arts in Saint Paul, MN and in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego.