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Fixing American politics is easy: be humble and lower the stakes

Truly effective leaders don’t incessantly seek credit.

President Trump Addresses The Nation In His First State Of The Union Address To Joint Session Of  Congress Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Today in America, our leaders — on both sides — misunderstand power.

Power, properly applied, is rarely explicit, and even more rarely is possession of it claimed.

For a properly and adroitly powerful person, his or her power works behind the scenes. Indeed, the most powerful people might never even recognize the proper extent of their own power.

That said, our national culture in the United States is currently, clearly, and dangerously overfocused on demonstrating power. To expand a bit on the above, the greatest power is often that which one ought not to — and, more importantly, one need not to — claim.

While the example of King Charles I of England is arguably sufficient to prove the point, in more modern times one might simply consider the fall of Steve Bannon as a perfect example of this: By showing (or claiming) in a variety of ways that he had power in the White House, he ultimately (presumably) lost whatever power he had there.

Voters aren’t fools

Americans know that truly effective leaders don’t incessantly seek credit: When President Trump claims credit for outlandish or unearned achievements, we roll our eyes. Some (many Democrats) find this ridiculous and off-putting, while others (some Republicans) find it refreshing and even charming.

I will admit, there is value in shaking things up. That said, we’re talking about “shaking things up” in the White House — in the principal position of leadership of the world’s only superpower. This isn’t about breaking out of the rut of the usual date night at the local brewpub; it’s about national and global politics.

Being different is good, but the point here is that Trump, and too many of the leaders of both parties, is focused on demonstrating “power,” the exercise of which is seemingly equated with scoring a win. If all my opponents are trying to score a win, then whenever I give a concession to them, it easily follows that I must have scored a loss.’

This is a problem for reaching agreements because if we’re all supposed to value scoring wins, then we must all have a strict and distinct distaste for losses, right?

That’s the key point: in our current environment, losses repel and stymie agreement. Thus, if possible, one should get the “win” without making your opponent score the “loss.” Caring about “winning” in a visible context makes politics (unnecessarily) a zero-sum game. We have many places to compromise: Caring about winning, per se, only pushes us further away from the agreement that makes us both better.

So well known, so easy ... yet so hard

The wisdom of making politics (or business, or marriage, or friendship, etc.) a “win-win” business is an old adage. It’s an old adage because it’s true: If we’re being honest, there’s nothing better than getting what you want while letting the other side claim a win. You get what you need while also being able to stand tall and, most importantly, know that you can work with the other side again.

Working over time with the same people requires sometimes taking the short end of the stick. It does not mean being the sucker: The implicit, “social” contract is that each side wins, and loses, sometime. This is where the frailty of the social contract emerges: When either side decides that it must win all the time, then — very quickly — there are no deals to be had. No agreement is possible. If there is agreement, it must be secured in a (backroom) way that allows both sides to claim victory.

So what’s the solution?

We have pressing issues that matter to the right, left, and middle of the political spectrum. These issues — education, health care, immigration, and infrastructure, to name only four — will require bipartisan buy-in to make progress. It’s complicated, and lots of decisions need to be made. Realistically, if we’re going make progress, no “side” is going to win on all of those decisions.

Given our current state of underinvestment in working together and our leaders’ current overinvestment in polarizing speech and acts, we must let our leaders know that losing on occasion not only can lead to, but indeed is necessary for, winning in the long term. After that, when we all finally kick back and extend our hands across the figurative aisle to each other, maybe we can acknowledge that we not only won but won together.

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