As the American populace waits to see whether the Congress’s supercommittee can agree on some kind of plan to avoid across the board cuts to all government programs — including the liberals’ “untouchables” [Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid] along with the conservatives’ sacred cow [Defense] — it looks as if our government of elected representatives has truly broken down, and no longer has the ability to “govern” anything, least of all itself.
The facts seem to argue that to develop a sensible federal budget, costs of government programs have to be reduced, while at the same time government revenues are raised through increases in taxes. Otherwise, the gap between spending and revenue is simply too large to cover. The shorthand in Washington calls such a solution — one that entails tax increases along with spending cuts — a “Grand Bargain.” Polls have shown that most Americans are in favor of such a solution, at least in theory — as long as the programs that get cut are not programs that deliver benefits that they personally cherish, and the burden of tax increases is borne by someone other than themselves.
It’s a standoff — Republicans pledge to defeat any plan that raises taxes. Democrats insist that welfare programs can’t be reduced. Every proposal made by either party is rejected out-of-hand as not even worthy of discussion. No one will give an inch, and they make no progress, so we have a total breakdown of a legislative process that depends on well-considered negotiation and compromise.
To me, things inside the Beltway have broken down because the major parties and their members no longer trust anyone, least of all members of the opposing party. It’s not surprising. In a political system where, once elected, the Senators and Representatives primary goal becomes getting re-elected, what else would you expect? Election campaigns focus less on issues than on personalities. Rather than explain what they stand for, candidates have found that it is far easier to bad-mouth their opposition, and the opposition candidate’s political party. After so much vilification and demonization, how is it possible to trust those who sit across the aisle in Congress?
To a large degree, trust relies on good will. Whatever “will” Congress has right now, it is clearly something other than “good.” Neither party believes the other party has the good of the country at heart; worse, neither party seems willing to take the first step toward building the kind of trusting relationship necessary for them to work together in the best interests of the entire country, not just the special interests of their vocal supporters.
The most important lesson about trust that I’ve learned is that if trust is the foundation of a relationship, then start out by building, never by tearing down. You can’t wait for someone else to “prove” that they are trustworthy. You give them the benefit of the doubt. You prove that you are worthy of trust by trusting others without demanding that they prove themselves worthy of your trust. You take the risk because the reward can be great.
But there’s more to it than simply taking the first step. A critical element in a trusting relationship is flexibility. Of course, every person starts out thinking she is flexible, so how is it that you can feel that you are flexible, yet not be perceived as being flexible? Either not trying hard, or trying the wrong things can lead to that unfortunate, unintended result. Moreover, if you don’t really listen to people, then no matter what you do, people won’t believe you are flexible. And when it is most important, being flexible is often the most difficult.