Politics as Personal

by Raphael Bostic

For a while now, I have been reflecting on the important role that “the personal” plays in determining whether a governance arrangement is going to be effective. It is clear that, regardless of what policy topic is being debated, the likelihood of finding common ground and success is far greater if the people on the competing sides know each other outside of their adversarial roles.

Think about your own life. Are you more likely to lend $100 to a random person you met on the train or your neighbor? Would you be more willing to cede your parking space at a mall if you noticed that the driver of the other car was the parent of your son’s classmate than if it was someone you didn’t know? I think the answers to both would be consistent with this basic truth: you are much more likely to trust and compromise with someone you know.

Yet when we look at our political structures, the opportunities for interacting with people on the “other” side in situations that are not about debate and argument seem to be dwindling, perhaps at an alarming rate. Congressmen now rush back to their districts on Thursday nights or Friday mornings, rather than stay in Washington with their families as used to be the norm. And as former Senator Evan Bayh noted at a Schwarzenegger Institute lunch forum last week, in the 12 years he served in the Senate there were very, very few bipartisan lunches that were something other than ceremonial events. And this is not just a Washington DC issue. I have heard similar tales told of Sacramento.

Finding compromise and crafting solutions is going to be ever more difficult if our lawmakers continue to not know each other as something other than “the opposition.” Yet compromise represents the essence of doing politics. We need to be moving in the other direction. We must advance tools and strategies that buck this trend and bring “the personal” back into our politics. Our collective success depends on it.

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