A common theme emerged in the reflections of the political pundits on the three recent sources of political crisis: the administration’s talking points on the Benghazi attack; The IRS targeting of conservative organizations seeking 501 (C) 4 tax-exempt status; and the Justice Department’s subpoenas of the phone records of Associated Press reporters. In each case, there was a devastating effect on the level of trust in government.

This eroding level of trust among politicians contributes strongly to the current political gridlock. Those who clamor for “small government” now have more ammunition for questioning any new government programs because government just cannot be trusted to implement any new legislation.

This erosion of trust is even more evident in the abysmal level of confidence in government reported by citizens. This lack of trust on the part of citizens poisons their views on the acceptability, or lack thereof, of major proposals for legislation currently being debated in Congress. For example, in discussing with a pastor friend of mine the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill currently being debated in the U. S. Senate, I applauded the “balanced” nature of the proposed legislation, in that it has strong law and order measures at the same time that it provides a tough but fair pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (see my May 1 Blog Musing, “The Elusive Search for Balance in Political Legislation”).

The reaction of my friend was sobering: “Yes, but my conservative parishioners are not in favor of this comprehensive plan because they don’t trust the Obama administration to actually implement any law and order measures (e.g., stronger border security) that may be part of a comprehensive package that Congress approves”.

It is hard to overestimate the damage that this loss of trust in government has on political discourse. The brokenness of political discourse among citizens needs to be addressed. But I will focus the remainder of this musing on the appalling state of political discourse among politicians. The problem lies primarily in the ways in which politicians typically engage those on the other side of the aisle.

A bedrock pre-requisite for politicians who disagree with one another about any public policy issue being able to identify the “common ground” needed for governing is that they first achieve a high level of “mutual trust and respect.” Political scientist Stephen Monsma has eloquently elaborated on this pre-requisite in proposing a “Dialogue Model for Cultural Engagement” in stark contrast to the prevalent confrontational model.[1]

In brief, Monsma argues that the first step in his three-step dialogue model is “establishing a spirit of mutual trust and respect with those with whom one disagrees,” either by “establishing personal face-to-face relationships” or, if that is not possible, by engaging “in dialogue in a thoughtful, honest, respectful manner in your writing, speeches, or artistic endeavors” (pp. 28-29). Establishing this relationship of mutual trust and respect will make it “harder for you to write off the other person, and the other person will have a harder time writing you off, as stupid, biased, or evil. It becomes harder for persons in a dispute to demonize the other as foolish or bad” (p. 29).

Monsma’s second step in the dialogue model is an extension of the first step: “Coming to understand why those who are opposed to us take the positions that we see as being wrong” (p. 30). It is when we get to know others in a relationship of trust that we come to a mutual understanding of how our respective social locations inform our differing perspectives on the issue at hand, which will prepare us to talk respectfully about our disagreements.

It is only after we have engaged one another in these first two steps that we may be prepared to take the huge third step: “that of persons on the other side altering their position – or you, perhaps, altering your position – so as to reach greater, even if not complete, agreement” (p. 30).

I whole-heartedly embrace Monsma’s Dialogue Model for engaging those with whom you disagree. In fact, my entire web site is based on this model. But to suggest that this model is feasible in our current political climate appears to be ludicrous. So what can realistically be done to improve the engagement between politicians?

If you are hoping that I will provide an easy answer, you will be sorely disappointed. Trust cannot be legislated. It can only be earned. And restoring trust that has been lost is an extremely difficult task that typically takes a long time. So, I can only propose a modest first step.

Monsma’s model for dialogic discourse suggests that politicians need to get to know one another better on a personal level, so that they gain clearer understanding of the reasons for their disagreements and earn each other’s respect despite their differences.

Such “personal engagement” between politicians on opposite sides of the aisle, including opportunities for greater social interaction, seems to have virtually disappeared from the current political scene. The result is that those who disagree about important public policy issues typically view each other not as friends, or at least collaborators, seeking what is good for the country, but only as combatants.

As modest as this first step sounds, it will require an enormous shift in how politicians currently engage one another. It is my hope that more politicians will try this “personal” strategy, which should also be pursued to change the mode of engagement between political pundits and other citizens who now prefer to demonize one another. I believe that such a strategy can be a small seed that begins the long, arduous process of rebuilding trust in government. 


[1] Stephen V. Monsma, “Called to be Salt and Light: An Overview” in Harold Heie & Michael A. King, Editors, Mutual Treasure: Seeking Better Ways for Christians and Culture to Converse (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2009), pp. 21-36.

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Reader Comments (1)

Harold, I really like the idea of more personal interactions between politicians. I think you are correct that this is the best identifiable first step toward mutual trust. To be honest, this raised a question for me about models that existed in the past. Did U.S. politicians of ages gone by "hang out and get to know one another" more often? Was there more of a sense of collegiality among our statesmen in other times? If so, how far back to we have to go to see this example? Digging out some evidence from the past may flesh out a more concrete "first step" toward respectful conversation, as it would make more clear what precisely has changed in Washington that makes this currently less possible. I'd love to hear a political historian trace the movement in the scene and environment of Washington over the last hundred years or so. If I had to put my money down, I'd bet that lobbyists, and the time they demand is one of the factors cutting in on social engagements that used to happen "across the aisle."

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristina Wassell
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