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The Limelight Hypothesis, Part 2

Being an essay of opinions and observations on sundry issues related to the practice of negotiation; politics and electioneering; dickering over debt in the nation’s capital; Otto von Bismarck’s admonition about watching laws and sausages being made; a budding theory on the effect of constant attention-mongering from MSNBC, FOX News, and other bloggers, pundits, and blabbermouths; the creation of statutes, ordinances, rules, policies, regulations, and standards; and the making of hot dogs, chorizos, kielbasas, and bratwursts.

Part 1

Part 2: Politics, Elections, and Media-Mongering

Otto von Bismarck’s admonition not to watch too closely when laws and sausages are being made bears revisiting. The CEO of a meat company that turns out 60,000 pounds of hot dogs a year not far from the nation’s capitol once offered an interesting retort to Otto. He suggested that all this perennial talk likening law and sausage making is an insult to hot dog manufacturers. His, he proudly claimed, is a hygienic, certified, and grownup business.

Contrary to both Otto and the “wurstmeister,” we have found the fights between the House, Senate, Executive, and all the “R” and “D” factions over government shutdowns, debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs, revenue enhancers, entitlement cuts, and Obama Care both mesmerizing and illuminating. Virtually all the negotiation concepts we try to use in our work and pass on to students have been on open display.

In the beltway dramas, we get a good peep at the complicated rationales people put forward to prop up their demands and offers. We see brinksmanship, game playing, bogeys and red herrings, extortion, bribery, sophistry, preening, bluffing, and feinting often fueled by self-interest, escalating emotions and cognitive biases. We see the tensions and paradoxes of in-team and cross-table bargaining, the hyperbolic discounting and competitive irrationality when people lose self-control, the risk taking, risk resistance, and risk aversion that goes with escalating stakes, and the constant creation and disappearance of serious trade zones.

In the nostalgic circumstances of just a few years ago, congressional political opponents might have prosecuted their cases to the public in serious speeches on the floors of the Congress or in well-crafted op-ed pieces in the dailies. Then, they would retreat behind a closed door to do some private deal making. They would have bartered out some of their differences and eventually, out would have popped a complete legislative hot dog ready for marketing and sales. Hot dogs, we should remind you, are just one American sub-species of a much larger phylum of sausages that includes many different salamis and baloneys, each made of ground meats, spiced up with savories, and served in tubes that keep the insides inside and look nice, especially when they are dressed up for sale.

Politicians in democratic systems have an additional confounding and often overriding negotiating context to think about: the next election. Every candidate who wants public office must include his or her own future electoral fate in their limelight calculus not to mention the fate of their allies, financial supporters, and their party. To win an election, a candidate must appeal to enough voters to gain majorities in both a primary and general election.  Among other things, this allows political pundits to observe how a candidate first “appeals to the base” and then “tacks toward the middle.”  They must often do this in short election cycles and if they have ambitions to move to higher office, they need to think ahead to future elections.  As JFK wryly observed, “Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be president but they don’t want them to become politicians in the process.”  

Election winning is a delicate business, most of it played out in the limelight. Candidates must streamline their story, move towards the simplest and fewest planks, and concentrate their effort into a limited number of key messages.  Normally, he or she needs to pay respectful attention to the constituents who think they are wrong, corrupt, or stupid but still manage to convince the undecideds, crossovers, and independents to their side.  Candidates must differentiate themselves from one another often leading to a reciprocal dynamic of each staking out positions more extreme than either might normally espouse. And finally, a candidate needs to win.

Once in office, the “win” imperative changes to a “hold office” imperative with the possible additional necessity of “winning” a future higher office. At a minimum, it’s one corner of a triangulation that also includes the need to deliver on promises and the need to actually govern. Now, the complex business of bills and budgets are on the table and in play. To succeed with these requires multiple and ongoing negotiations that, in turn, require clarifying short and long-term interests, assessing best and worst alternatives, generating options, and weighing options for future positioning.

To spell this out further, each negotiator who uses the limelight has to consider a longer list of players at second, and possibly third, fourth and fifth tables: colleagues, constituents, donors, press commentators. Each of these players has their own interests and views of what constitutes a right outcome, sometimes shaded or nuanced differently. Many of them will be involved in negotiations with each other.

In Washington DC and the capitols of the states, electioneering intrudes into everything. While one official is positioning his or her story in the limelight, others are contemplating their own political destinies and factoring their own calculus. If a lime-lit negotiator is focused on elections — his own, his opponent’s, or his party’s — then his best and worst alternatives to negotiated agreements are not fixed but fluid judgments.

Status, prestige, and power in political structures also matter. Presidents outrank legislative leaders who outrank majority leaders who outrank minority leaders and who in turn carry more weight than freshmen, specialized caucuses, and splinter factions. For bigger issues, important donors, lobbyists, and contribution “bundlers” may be in play. The “field of forces” for any given negotiation may be many dozens of ripples away from a single stone dropped in the negotiation pond.

Further hovering over all this is the press which, channel by channel, tweet by tweet, and headline by headline, ultimately decides who gets what kind of actual limelight time and at what levels of wattage and brightness. The press may decide who gets the limelight on the basis of drama or convenience, not necessarily on the basis of which players are wielding the most influence.  By definition we don’t get to see the backroom deals being made. We as citizens may be watching where the light lands but not where the source actually emanates from. While political shenanigans have always been with us, the role of media and its views have also changed. 

Forty years ago people divided their loyalties too. Some might have favored the avuncular Walter Cronkite while others were drawn to the wryer banter of Huntley and Brinkley.  Those choices were made more on the basis of personality and style and less because of ideological orientation. Today many consumers select the outlets that will massage their existing predilections and prejudices.  Whether these changes in the media are a contributing cause to a state of national political discussion or a reflection of it is unclear.  It may be, as depicted by one Chinese character, a case of “mutual arising.”  

Whatever the entanglement of causes and effects, today we can communicate with large numbers of like-minded persons. Unlike the days where information vectors were largely limited to the daily papers and three networks, there is an outlet for every political and personal purpose. And the whole phenomenon is self-reinforcing: research shows that as like-minded people interact, the certainty of positions intensifies. In this kind of echo chamber, beliefs trump facts. Meanwhile, the media outlets play to an increasingly fractured and homogenous set of demographics. The tribalism that once had evolutionary value has become maladaptive in the same way that our craving for sugar and salt, once important survival strategies has become detrimental in the excesses of more sedentary life styles.

What we see in the fights between Republicans, Democrats and the Tea Party faction is hardly new. American democracy has gone through polarizing times before (think of Senator Charles Sumner being caned on the chamber floor in 1856) and then found new periods of common ground on which to stand.  Moreover, we also know that political courage has always had a part to play. John Kennedy wrote about this in Profiles in Courage in which he chronicled the apex negotiations of senators like John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and others and the countervailing demands for winning and holding office and governing with the higher interests of the body politic in mind.

Kennedy debunked the notion that compromise is bad. He called concession making, balance seeking, and negotiated trades the “cement” that holds us together. The courage to break from party lines, to step away from electioneering hyperbole and the more absolutist stands required to get elected comes in multiple hues and stripes, some vibrant, others shades of gray. In our view, political courage in bargaining embodies the interplay of (a) a commitment to important and previously articulated principles; (b) an awareness of tangible threats and risks to those principles; (c) the collision with others who hold different principles and interests; and ultimately, (d) a willingness to enter the messy fray of negotiation where stated values must now become “values-in-action” and become bluntly tested.

Last Thoughts

The semantics politicians use to describe negotiations when they bargain in the limelight requires decoding. They will all speak of “discussion,” “diplomacy,” “dialogue,” “leadership” (or lack of it), “framework building,” “roadmap creation,” “cooperation,” and “problem solving.” At the end of the day, though, it is all about getting some of the people’s business done. In Spanish the word for business is negocios; negotiation is business and business is negotiation. It’s about creating, exchanging, dividing, allocating, or amplifying value. There may be dog-sniffing meetings, thousands of cups of coffee or tea, formal or informal conferences, predictable and tiresome flights of rhetoric, meetings at toilet breaks, or exchanges of friendly or unfriendly letters. At the end of the day, negotiating public or private issues is about stumbling, lurching, slithering or gliding into the trade zone where agreements potentially live.

Candidates seeking to gain or retain office have to run a gauntlet. They must lean toward greater absolutism than the electorate as a whole may demand, then try desperately to tack back toward the middle. Would it not be interesting if we had political campaigns that focused less on exaggerating policy differences and minimizing similarities between the aspirants and more towards why prospective candidates had the qualities, wisdom, and insight to govern?  But that, like “win-win” football or “interest-based poker” may be a tall order to convey.

Perhaps the 2012 Massachusetts senate contest between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren was a petri dish of sorts. Brown tried to portray himself as strongly bipartisan and willing to compromise in the interest of ending gridlock.  Whether that is an accurate portrayal or not, he seemed to campaign on the very quality that some say is inherently antithetical to political campaigns.  Unsurprisingly, for her part, Warren did not impugn bi-partisanship per se but attacked Brown’s claim as being disingenuous.  Brown lost. Bi-partisanship may be a far better governing virtue than election strategy. 

We know the whole issue is easier to diagnose than remedy.  Some in the dispute resolution field seem to take the view that, “Beltway negotiators just need to learn about and apply interest based/mutual gains principles of negotiation and all will be improved.” Color us skeptical.  Even though derision of elected officials is a national sport, our government leaders by and large understand how to make deals and come together when they see it in their interest to do so.  

Like any family, political combatants have it in them to set down their swords, pick up their plowshares, and together lead with greater collaboration and efficiency.  However, the impetus for doing so is stronger if the issues in question are not only important but also urgent. Post-9-11, there was considerable commentary about how the country pulled together in a crisis. People were reportedly even more polite driving.

Let there be a national pandemic that kills millions, an alien invasion from Pluto, or a massive volcano in Nebraska and we would likely see different behavior in the limelight at least during the crisis, something akin to what one writer called “a sudden outbreak of common sense.” There is always plenty of time later to assign blame or claim credit. Arguing in the limelight about complicated long-term issues, while not conducive to good leadership and authentic problem solving, is good electioneering at least until a crisis is upon us.

On the front of American politics, we think there is good news and bad. The good news is that after a period of exhaustive fighting and public disgust, we may slowly be seeing a creeping recognition of the need for a common ground that is powerful enough to resist the absolutists on all sides. The bad news is it will be harder and harder to resist the lure of the limelight when difficult moments arise and public posturing will inevitably interrupt and elongate important political negotiations.

As far as the eye can see or our political minds can wander, more governance battles lie ahead. The topics will shift in and out of focus and other issues will become pawns in the political and cultural wars that perpetually play out in anticipation of the next election. Immigration. Carbon taxes. Reproductive rights. Agricultural and food policies. These issues will land in budget hearings, law-making and judicial battles and the public will again get to see some of these negotiations in the glare of the limelight.

Mo Udall once said we will all be remembered more for how we treated people than the issues and positions of the moment. But we three know that while political issues come and go, sausage making endures. Even for the three of us who generally try to eat healthy, a nice hot dog from a good wurstmeister is to be relished, particularly if it punctuates months of virtue-grazing on salads, fruits, and veggies.

Once in a while, we recommend an over-the-top hot dog, Chicago style, “dragged through the garden” as they say, with a bun that has been steamed to perfection by a guy who knows his sausage-making negocios, served up with sweet onions, a slather of relish, tomato wedges, snappy peppers, some celery salt, yellow mustard, a pickle spear and maybe some potato chips or Freedom Fries. In politics, as in food, we are what we eat.

Bon appetit! 


David Matz

David Matz teaches conflict resolution at UMass/Boston and is a partner in The Mediation Group. Professor Matz has focused his work on the techniques of mediation and negotiation and on the relationship of these to the workings of organizations and courts. In the United States, he has led in the… MORE >


Doug Thompson

Douglas Thompson has a background in environmental protection, dispute resolution, and management. He serves as a senior mediator and facilitator at CBI. Recent case work has included matters related to issues as diverse and drinking water disinfection, marine mammal concerns, nuclear waste and chemical weapons clean-up, state-federal interactions around technical… MORE >


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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