Negotiator in Chief?

Explaining Donald Trump’s provocative rhetoric, a long-time Republican operative was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “[Trump has] always said privately that he’s learned from negotiations that you start from the far end. If you start in the middle you lose.” This positional bargaining tactic is hardly surprising. It might even be quaint if it wasn’t so destructive or deeply entrenched in the riggings of a win-lose binary that keeps broad swaths of humanity mired in a sycophantic devotion to self-interest.

One has to wonder where Trump has been in our post Getting to Yes world. The work of Roger Fisher and William Uri, among so many since, highlights the promise and effectiveness of principled negotiating – negotiating that rests on mutuality without compromising the need for favorable results. In its most articulate expression, it gets beyond the language of winning and losing (forsaking even the coveted win-win) in favor of creative alternatives that assure mutual benefit and lasting, productive relationships.

The world of winning and losing, winners and losers is by nature unkind and violent. It is unproductive. It leads to power grabs and arms races and pushes the planet ever closer to destruction. So much energy is expended on climbing the ladder – corporate, political, social – that the weakening of the rungs is overlooked. At stake is not just the self, but the soul; not just the individual, but the gossamer web that binds society.

Thomas Paine wrote in his influential The Rights of Man,

The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government.

Mutual dependence and reciprocal interest are the antidote to anarchy and lawlessness. Win-lose modalities support the latter and undermine the former, all the while eroding any semblance of a great chain of connection.

It’s little surprise that Trump’s populist campaign, which follows the path of least resistance with its win-at-all-costs posture, has been so effective in attracting the support of especially white males whose sense of entitlement is rooted in historical privilege. This sense of entitlement comes at great cost to society, which remains fragmented in terms of race, gender, and class (among a host of other prefabricated divisions).

In all fairness, Trump is not alone. Despite varying political agendas and approaches, it is clear that each of the candidates has bought into the dominant narrative of the win-lose dichotomy. It seems a necessity of the current practice of democracy. The Sanders campaign, for all that it claims to present an alternative narrative, does not reflect the level of rhetorical or policy awareness that would bind society more closely together. Across the spectrum of candidates in this awfully long election season, there’s an almost complete dearth of talk about working with opponents or negotiating compromises that would serve the best interests of all the people.

The angry, often bitter rhetoric sown recklessly by the candidates and exploited by the media’s self-interest in ratings that drive advertising revenues is a significant threat to the fabric of society. It belies an arrogance that conquers by dividing rather than painstakingly sowing together the tears and tatters of the great American tapestry envisioned by the Founders.

With the balance of power carefully distributed between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches – and given the specific powers granted the president – the Constitution calls forth not just a commander in chief, but a negotiator in chief. It envisions a reasonable president, Congress, and judiciary working together in service of the more perfect union called for in the Preamble, where justice is established, domestic tranquility ensured, common defense provided, general welfare promoted, and in which the blessings of liberty are secured in the present and for posterity.

This may sound naïve in light of deepening political divisions, but I believe the vision of the Founders may yet become the renewed vision of the nation. It will take principled leaders to guide the nation and principled negotiations to reframe political discourse and shift the status quo toward a more productive footing. The language of mutuality and reciprocity needs to be regained. Common interest, as Payne suggests, needs to regulate concerns and form laws so that society as a whole may be sewn together through good governance and a revived sense of common identity.

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