Hyperpartisanism: a consequence of mismanaged complexity?

In an inaugural event in NYC last weekend, the NoLabels movement presented its view of a way to resolve the hyperpartisan crisis in America. “Legislators need to stop fighting and to start working together.”

It is unclear how and when legislators choose to fight. Newly seated legislators don’t come into office with aggressive intent. They typically come from cultures where collaboration has prevailed. Given this, one might suppose that there is either something about the working culture of Congress or about the process of dealing with the complexity of federal lawmaking that causes congressmen to cling too tightly to their parties.

What if our problem is the challenge of dealing with complexity? Compelling legislators to make decisions does not address the issue of the quality of decisions that are made. Do legislators sense that decision-making suffers from poorly shared understandings of what lies beneath the proposed laws? Do legislators believe the reasoning is clear and that philosophical differences are impossible to reconcile?

When legislators who support the NoLabels movement were asked last week if they felt that they had clear understandings of the situations that they faced, the reflex response was that all legislators have strong staffs who raise both the pros and cons of all issues. But what does this mean? Each legislator is a silo of learning, where internal staffers — many of whom have profound allegiance for the success of their formal political parties — frame problems in terms that are shaped by their partisan view of the world. If learning occurs largely or exclusively within such silos, the larger legislative arena becomes a battlefield for debate.

The virtue of debate is that it can soften positions by shattering strong convictions, but the vice of debate is that it can harden positions by defining adversaries. Redesigning complex understandings is a difficult and sometimes embarrassing business. Letting go of one sense of certainty before another sense of certainty is in hand requires an act of genuine courage. Without a realistic belief that a new and better certainty might emerge, we wisely will cling to our prior positions. Our only real hope for finding collaborative solutions rests in our ability to trust in each other and the quality of our design processes.

As an exercise of hope, NoLabels.org is issuing a rally cry to the youth in our communities to defend our democratic processes. NoLabels has foresworn setting any policy agenda other than a policy to continually improve the quality of legislative dialogue. They want us to talk with each other and advocate linking pay with performance; scheduling working sessions for essential interactions, and establishing a consolidated source of facts. Complexity aside, this three-fold focus on improving incentive, opportunity, and information is compelling. They are not trying to engineer agreements. They are trying to remove the barriers that can prevent agreements from emerging, and in doing this to fortify of our institutions of democracy themselves. The bill for this deferred maintenance is now painfully due.