After a victory for the Republican Party in the Senate last week in the US midterm elections, the United States once again finds itself in the unpleasant position of facing utter gridlock: two parties with opposing viewpoints are in positions of high power with circular veto power. The result of this is that virtually nothing actually happen, and contentious issues do not make any progress in either direction. Within the western political world, this is a phenomenon thankfully limited in large part to the bipartisan American political system, which admittedly faces a whole slew of troubles. However outside of politics, this is a problem also to be found in boardrooms and within small, family-owned businesses, among others.
At least in the case of the US government, if not others, part of the underlying issue behind the gridlock is the premise of a bipartisan system: as both parties can become more adversarial and polarized in opposite directions, the contempt between members of opposing parties becomes increasingly prevalent as the line between personal attacks and thought-based attacks blurs. Motions made by one party might be vetoed by the other not because of the idea behind it, but because it was made by the other party. It might be a matter of saving face and retaining a level of pride, but when put into practice, it simply prevents issues from moving ahead – they remain stagnant.
It is thus perhaps part of the problem that in this situation, there is virtually no form of guided negotiation. Because coalitions are non-existent in American politics, the idea of compromise is generally seen not only as a weakness, but as a diversion from the parties’ true values. It is, of course, difficult to say that mediation would make a dent in the American gridlock, particularly considering its depth and breadth. However in any dispute it can be difficult to separate the person from the ideas, and a neutral chairperson or mediator can have the ability to not only settle a dispute in terms of value, but can also perhaps bring both parties to reach a level of emotional satisfaction that allows them to interact normally and to see each other beyond their personal viewpoints. This might happen between business partners who have deviated from their original ideas several decades prior or family members who have allowed a conflict to get in the way of their relationship. Mediation centralises itself upon the interests of each party and the resolution of conflict in a way that provides equal satisfaction for both parties, and yet also demands concessions from both parties in order to avoid a relationship-destroying “all or nothing” solution.
Is it a bit hopeful to think that mediation could solve America’s political problems? The issues that lay between the Democratic and Republican parties are deeply entrenched, go back many generations, and arguably hold more at stake than a business dispute does. Although Congress unfortunately has a history of serving as a prime example of gridlock in recent years, any conflict can come to a place of no motion, perhaps as a combination of values, stubbornness, and personal projections. Discussing issues at a table, rather than in a courtroom or a house of ‘parliament’, and with a non-decisive neutral, instead of a judge, might repair relationship schisms to the point of being able to see future problems as ideas rather than people.
By Leah Oppenheimer