I've always loved classic rock (of course, it wasn't classic when I played it as a deejay; it was new back then). Sometimes, a song from the 60s and 70s will just pop into my mind, and over the past few days, I've been thinking about "For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey What's That Sound)" by Buffalo Springfield. When it came out, many of us thought it was about the Vietnam War, but it wasn't; it was about clashes between young people and the police in mid-1966 in Hollywood, California. Still, the lines about polarization, and how each side was convinced that their side was good and the other side was bad, really resonated with me. They still do, more than five decades later. Back then, those of us who were opposed to the war were having heated and often-angry debates with those who supported it. Sometimes, the rhetoric got really intense, and just like the song said, it seemed like a no-win situation, since neither side would back down. ("There's battle lines being drawn/nobody's right if everybody's wrong...")
Fast-forward to today. As I write this, the government has been partially shut down for more than three weeks, causing over 800,000+ people to not receive a paycheck, and causing countless services people rely on to either shut down or operate with a skeleton (and unpaid) staff. Each side is convinced that their side is right, and the other side is wrong: President Trump, who said on TV that he'd be "proud" to shut down the government over funding for a border wall, refuses to negotiate unless congress agrees to give him more than five billion dollars. The newly empowered Democrats in the House are willing to give him funding for border security (more immigration judges, more border agents, reinforcing the fencing and barriers in various places) but they're unwilling to give him five billion for a wall. And while both sides are dug in, 800,000 government workers have no idea when is the next time they'll get paid.
I see this "I'm right/you're wrong" attitude in many areas of life, but especially in politics. There's an unwillingness to engage in discussion unless the other side agrees to give in (the "my way or the highway" approach); in fact, as some political scientists and commentators have noted, "compromise" has become a dirty word, which now carries a connotation of "weakness." In the border wall debate, each side's supporters are urging them to "stand strong" and "not surrender," rather than encouraging a much-needed effort to find some common ground and get those 800,000 people back to work.
Refusing to compromise wasn't always the default position. Historians note that many times in our country, voters demanded that politicians stop bickering and find some middle ground. Agreed, there were times this was not the case-- the Civil War, for example, and the Vietnam War era. But many other times, compromise was seen as necessary for getting things done. Unfortunately, we don't hear much of that from our political leaders today. Thanks to social media and 24/7 cable channels, the people with the most intransigent and extreme views are the ones who get noticed (and listened to). And as for everyone else--including those of us who DO want compromise-- we're left to feel like nobody cares what we have to say.
What worries me, as an educator, is the message this is sending to young people. When kids sulk and throw tantrums, we correct them or punish them; and we tell they're being immature. But when our politicians (and even our president) behave that way, they get rewarded with lots of TV and online attention, voters often praise them, and in all too many cases, they get re-elected. We're living in a time when stubbornness is seen as a virtue, when refusing to give an inch is seen as a good thing. But it's not. It's telling kids that acting like an angry five year is how to deal with a problem. Meanwhile, 800,000 government workers are sidelined, their fate resting on whether congress and the president will finally decide to be adults and solve this, rather than only doing what's right for each side's political needs.