Unlike many of the people I've talked to about this, though, I don't think that it's a matter of "both" sides finding a way to "negotiate."
For one, I know that the "both" sides is an illusion. This isn't a coin to flip. Depending on how you want to slice and dice, there could be as few as one side or as many as 535 (536 if you want to count Obama's, too). After all, several Republicans have publicly asked for passing a clean continuing resolution and ending the shutdown. What "side" are they on if there are only two?
Our tendency to boil everything down to two sides is indicative of our rhetorical desire for an antagonistic battle to the end. We have two sides, each representing an extreme of some kind, and we force them to "negotiate" where either one side will "win" or the two sides will each move to the "middle" and we'll get the best solution.
This rhetoric is everywhere.
In a recent speech, Obama came out swinging against this media narrative, reminding us that Democrats already negotiated; the funding levels a clean CR would put into place are already a compromise where the Democrats agreed to meet Republican demands on funding, cutting the funding for many programs they see as key.
Yesterday, Republican Congressman Brad Wenstrup went on the House floor to request that everyone stop throwing around war metaphors for this current conflict, but war metaphors are the natural landing place for a culture that only knows antagonistic rhetoric when there is a conflict. We give lip service to collaborative styles of rhetoric, but (on a mainstream scale) we don't even have the language to talk about what we're currently facing: a conflict that is not a war.
All of this has made me think about Richard Ohmann's English in America, particularly a chapter where he examines the potential negative impact of the liberal model of rhetoric (this is a model--as discussed by Patricia Roberts-Miller in Deliberate Conflict--that relies on a rational means of debate where "interlocutors remain fundamentally (even profoundly) individual.")
The liberal model of rhetoric (and here liberal has nothing to do with the political label) is designed to allow room for debate from all involved parties. It is meant to erase the power differentials and bring everyone's best ideas into an open forum where they can be heard with rationality and balance. We can then let the best idea "win."
This concept sounds so good that we continue to insist on it no matter the circumstances. I've heard a lot of people angrily insisting that our politicians use the liberal model to handle this current conflict. "Just sit down at the table and listen to one another," they say, and it's easy to see why this model is appealing: it seems rational, balanced, and fair. It seems like the polar opposite of what is currently happening. It seems like progress.
As Ohmann explains, liberal rhetorical models maintain:
social choices are made by rational debate, in which all have equal voice; choice is determined by cooperative action of the participants. Power is played down.Eliminating the power differential can be a good thing. When a peasant's voice is given the same weight in a debate as a lord's, we end up with fairer policies. When people can't be dismissed because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or economic status, we hear more diverse and worthwhile ideas.
But the liberal model also operates to eliminate the power differential that's present in this particular debate. The Democrats have more power because they won more votes in the election. We went to the polls and elected these people. We elected (by a very healthy margin) a Democratic president who campaigned on the Affordable Care Act. We elected a majority of Democratic senators. We even voted for Democrats by a larger margin in the House, but the gerrymandering of districts didn't reflect that in House seats. (Democrats won 50.29 percent of the votes but only got 46.21 percent of the seats.)
Democrats have more power in this situation not because they're being unfair but because we voted to give them that power. The refusal of Obama and the Senate to negotiate on the shutdown is not a "war" on a weaker idea; it is a reflection of the democratic process in action.
Furthermore, this is not really a case of a slim majority of Democrats trying to overpower a slightly smaller group of Republicans. Many Republicans (including, it is rumored, John Boehner himself) want to vote for a clean continuing resolution and move on. The conflict is being continued because we are operating as if 18% of the elected officials in one half of one third of the federal government should have equal power as the rest of their branch of government and another entire branch of government combined, which is not reasonable or rational.
Liberal rhetorical policy teaches us that all voices hold equal weight, but that is directly counter to what it means to have a representative government. We hold an election and require those representatives to vote on things because those numbers matter.
Ohmann goes on to explain how dangerous this kind of rhetorical concept can be by exploring an example of memos sent during the Vietnam war. Because we tend to set up two extreme ends and then consider the middle the best (no matter what merits the extremes might have on their own), the policy decisions in Vietnam continued to be negotiated in tiny moves from the same basic decision over and over again:
No one suggested, or even mentioned, troop withdrawal, or reduction of the far more devastating bombing of South Vietnam; on the other extreme, no one talked of nuclear arms, and only the generals mentioned invading North Vietnam. The assignment not only excludes 'philosophy,' it excludes all tactics but those most like present tactics.The liberal model of rhetoric tells us that extremes are bad for the very simple reason that they are extremes. It has nothing to do with examining the actual content of those arguments: extreme positions are bad positions; the middle ground is always the best.
That's the rhetoric that's surrounding the current political turmoil. "Why can't these two sides sit down and come to an agreement," we ask. But these "two" sides have already negotiated. By positioning themselves as a new extreme, the Tea Party members of the Republican party have been able to use our desire for reasonableness and moderation against us. They have now taken the moderate position that was already negotiated and positioned it as a new extreme, asking us to meet in the middle again.
But that middle is not a "middle" at all.
By failing to move with the previous compromise and positioning the already compromised agreement as a new "extreme," a slim minority of the federal government representatives have given the impression that the only reasonable act is to continue acquiescing to their every whim. This is not reasonable or rational, and it is a deliberate ploy to play upon our desires for reasonableness and rationality to manipulate the system.
A handful of Republican officials are trying to trick America into thinking that they are half of a two-sided debate, but neither their number nor their position is accurate. This is not about moving to the middle; it is about government representing the majority, not the most vocal and least flexible.