May I Have This Dance?
Fixing a Dysfunctional Family: Congress
How Family Systems Theory explains what’s wrong with Washington—and maybe how we can fix it.
One of my most important mentors was a brilliant and eccentric rabbi from Bethesda, Maryland. He was among the first scholars to take the Family Systems Theory of psychiatrist Murray Bowen and apply it to religious congregational life. The original work of Bowen was focused on the dynamics within a nuclear family. It was a way of answering a perennial problem: Why will prolonged and intense psychiatric work with a patient sometimes produce no results at all? The answer: standing apart (self-differentiation was the term he used) and staying connected. The self- or well-differentiated person knows herself, knows what she believes and what she stands for, knows what principles she will never abandon, is not afraid to be flexible about and negotiate the rest, and is emotionally secure enough to take risks. The person who primarily “stays connected” to the people and systems around her is a good listener, can interpret the mood of a group and shape her own behavior to that mood in a way that makes her effective, cares deeply about what others think, is always taking the “temperature” of the room, and is always looking for ways to minimize conflict and promote consensually decided actions.
The reason Friedman described this as a dance between these two poles is that in order to be effective, one needs to be adept at using both of these poles. The person/leader stuck on the one side of “standing apart” cares little about what others are thinking, is resistant to hearing feedback, and exhibits a “my way or the highway” style, almost always to his detriment. At its extreme, this person is a tyrant. The person/leader stuck on the other side of “staying connected” stands for little, leads only by polling and sticking a wet finger in the wind, and cares way too much about what other people are thinking. At its extreme, this person is always saying “I feel your pain,” changing his mind according to the latest poll, and standing for little or nothing.
The trick, or the “dance” as Friedman would have said, is to be both – clear about who I am and what I stand for, but always connected to those around me and willing, within certain boundaries, to be flexible, vulnerable, and willing to negotiate for the good of the community. The art of leadership is the ability to move between the two poles at the appropriate times.
Here might be a way of understanding what is happening in Washington. Both political parties, and the President, have moved too close to the “standing alone” pole. And the result is gridlock. The Republicans, spurred on by the Tea Party, have taken the approach that they will oppose anything proposed by the President. It’s “my way or the highway,” even if it means shutting down the government.
Evidence of this disconnectedness on the part of Republicans began with the meeting on Inauguration Day in which the strategy was hatched to block any and every proposal coming from the President or the Democrats. For his part, the President (and perhaps his party) has become (or at least is now perceived as being) aloof and above the fray of negotiation and considers such political maneuverings as beneath him. Evidence abounds in the numerous comments made by moderate-not-crazy Republicans who feel that the President has been dismissive in his attitude toward them. And “staying connected” has been diminished by the now-standard practice of legislators not moving their families to Washington (where dinner parties and godchildren were shared across party lines), but instead flying home every Thursday night to be with their families and raise money over the weekend.
It seems to me that both sides need to move toward the “staying connected” pole. Each side actually needs to prioritize its priorities (that is, after all, what the word means) – separating those on which they cannot compromise without sacrificing their integrity or deeply held values from those that are important, yes, but not to be held onto at all costs. Neither side is going to get all that it wants.
“Stand apart” politicians argue a position, not an interest. Each side argues a particular solution to a particular problem and refuses to acknowledge that theirs is only one possible solution to that problem/interest. Both parties might begin by agreeing that they share an interest in, let’s say, fixing the broken immigration system. Both might acknowledge that their plan is but one solution. Then they might work together on a common solution that no one has yet thought of, which meets some or even most of the interests of both.
Pundits and politicians alike have already begun to mock the so-called “bourbon summit” between the President and the new Senate Majority Leader – but it is no laughing matter. It – or something like it – might be key to moving forward toward a working government. It points to the necessity for both sides to give up their “no way but the highway” stance and become more connected, a bit more genuinely (emphasis on genuinely) eager to understand the interests of the other side and a bit more willing to compromise on those things that are less important. It’s a dance between standing on principle and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good, and it’s a dance worth learning.
Only time will tell if the meeting between President Obama and the leadership of both Houses of Congress will be the beginning of a new connectedness, or whether each side will return to the ramparts and renew the disconnected fight. However, recent statements by House Speaker Boehner and incoming Majority Leader McConnell – that any executive order on immigration by the President, even one made with rightful authority, will result in Republicans punishing the President by being unwilling to work with him on other areas of policy in which there might be common ground – make me pessimistic. Let’s be clear: If such a revengeful reaction takes place, it will be the American public who gets punished.
In the aftermath of this election, wouldn’t it be thrilling instead to see one side step up and ask the other, “May I have this dance?"