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Policymakers Told Shared Misery Could Be Only Way to Relieve Gridlock

August 9, 2022 by Kate Michael
Policymakers Told Shared Misery Could Be Only Way to Relieve Gridlock

WASHINGTON — Thousands of policymakers and their aides returned to their jurisdictions from the National Conference of State Legislatures summit in Denver earlier this month with the 1914 Christmas Truce top of mind. Because, if the tale about the miraculous incident that happened on Christmas Day in the first year of World War I could truly happen in trench warfare, then perhaps political enemies in today’s time might be able to dial down their mistrust and come together in a productive way.

Maybe. But NCSL’s Legislative Training Institute Director Curt Stedron told them opening their minds to the concept of trust also requires shared misery.

“The men in trenches shared a profound misery,” Stedron said in his featured session at the summit. “Two things in life that bond humans together [are] love and misery, and there is plenty [of misery] when you’re talking about two parties in a conflict.”

While the modern legislature has its fair share of misery, the situation is quite different from the bloody stalemate in the abominable conditions of the trenches. Yet Stedron’s point was that if a situation gets bad enough, it may be possible to briefly look past the mutual dislike and mistrust and redefine the boundaries, if only for a short time.

“Trust is the most vital component of healthy relationships,” Stedron said, “But enemy relationships are, by definition, not healthy.

“The legislative chamber is one big beautiful ornate room that can sometimes lack trust … populated by political opponents that can sometimes act like enemies.

“The journey to building trust among enemies [happens when] the misery is greater than the mistrust that has built up between them over time.”

So if today’s political gridlock is, in fact, rooted in fundamental mistrust, Stedron offered that lessons from the Christmas Truce could help legislators to work through an impasse.

He pointed out that to shift the dynamic, even for a single day, a “truce” like the Christmas Truce needed to be time-bound, offer identical benefits to both sides, and require a brief cessation of hostilities.  But to even get to that point, some trust needs to be built.

One theory for building trust is Charles Osgood’s Graduated Reciprocation in Tension reduction, which looks to restore negotiations between deadlocked parties with a bargaining strategy that urges one side to initiate a concession through gradual, small-scale actions.

“[GRIT] usually doesn’t work because safe, small, low-cost gestures [are] seen as a weak play, or seen as a diabolical trick,” Stedron said. “When interpreted either of those ways, [hostility] is matched and the downward spiral continues.” 

Instead, Stedron suggested the political climate of today needs a frame-breaking method that reduces hostility and increases goodwill. And he believes the conciliation techniques of Nicholas Wheeler are “more likely to work” as they “require an action with the potential to overcome GRIT’s limitations.”

Overtures such as those proposed by Wheeler are “definitely not a weak play,” said Stedron. “They are so personally risky, [they] can’t possibly be a trick.”

But making a grand gesture requires vulnerability, which neither side is likely to want to show … unless the misery gets rough enough.  

“Vulnerability precedes trust,” Stedron insisted. 

“How miserable are you? How important, critical, vital is that shared purpose? Might it be worth the risk of a costly signal?” he asked the audience at NCSL. 

“I am not saying that an act of vulnerability will work. I’m saying that it has to happen for it to work.” 

Kate can be reached at kate@thewellnews.com

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