The Paradox of Bipartisanship: Stories From the Age of Emperor NerObama

George Will has a column up at Investor’s Business Daily where he states the obvious truth that the vaunted act of “bipartisanship” typically yields less than optimal results and often disaster:

Bipartisanship, the supposed scarcity of which so distresses the high-minded, actually is disastrously prevalent.

Since 2001, it has produced No Child Left Behind, a counterproductive federal intrusion in primary and secondary education; the McCain-Feingold speech rationing law (the Bipartisan) Campaign Reform Act); an unfunded prescription drug entitlement; troublemaking by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; government-directed capitalism from the Export-Import Bank; crony capitalism from energy subsidies; unseemly agriculture and transportation bills; bailouts of an unreformed Postal Service; housing subsidies; subsidies for state and local governments; and many other bipartisan deeds.

Now, with Europe’s turmoil dramatizing the decadence of entitlement cultures, and with American governments — federal, state and local — buckling beneath unsustainable entitlements, Congress is absent-mindedly creating a new entitlement for the already privileged.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column for the Panama City News Herald about modern Liberal (”progressive”) ideology that included this quote:

“Liberals do not seek to alleviate a burden; they merely seek to spread it to the entire of society for their brand of “progress” to succeed. The focus is not on eliminating the hazard, merely assuring that it is shared “equally” by all.”

Shared misery. That’s just great. It’s OK because it is bipartisan, right?

One of the charges from the American left is that the Republicans are intransigent, that we are “do-nothings” content to do nothing while Emperor NerObama fiddles and Rome burns, but is it always a good thing to compromise and get a “bipartisan” solution? Why is it that we seem to never get a good solution to a problem even when everyone “agrees”? Is bipartisanship always a good thing?

What Will describes is an apt description of the Abilene Paradox.

I first learned about the Abilene paradox in one of my MBA classes at the University of Utah. It was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management.  The name of the phenomenon comes from this anecdote in the article which Harvey uses to express the paradox:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

This paradox is a form of “group think” that results in the worst possible option being chosen and no member of the group getting anything that they want. The key to keeping this shell game going it to keep the group isolated enough from each other that they never recognize that they all feel the same way, that they never realize just how much they have in common, that they are more alike than different. Sound familiar?

If the group ever realizes that they share the same issues, it starts a “preference cascade” – a choice matrix by which people start to bond together over common purposes and goals against the forces that are keeping them from achieving these goals. I think that this “cascade” is beginning as each of us looks at our neighbor and sees that none of us want the current direction.

Harvey notes that it isn’t knowing how to manage disagreement that is the issue, it is our inability to manage agreement.

The inability to manage agreement, not the inability to manage conflict, is the essential symptom that defines organizations caught in the web of the Abilene Paradox. That inability to manage agreement effectively is expressed by six specific subsymptoms, all of which were present in our family Abilene group.

  1. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the nature of the situation or problem facing the organization. For example, members of the Abilene group agreed that they were enjoying themselves sitting in front of the fan, sipping lemonade, and playing dominoes.
  2. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the steps that would be required to cope with the situation or problem they face. For members of the Abilene group “more of the same” was a solution that would have adequately satisfied their individual and collective desires.
  3. Organization members fail to accurately communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another. In fact, they do just the opposite and thereby lead one another into misperceiving the collective reality. Each member of the Abilene group, for example, communicated inaccurate data to other members of the organization. The data, in effect, said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea. Let’s go to Abilene,” when in reality members of the organization individually and collectively preferred to stay in Coleman.
  4. With such invalid and inaccurate information, organization members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, and thereby arrive at results that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes. Thus, the Abilene group went to Abilene when it preferred to do something else.
  5. As a result of taking actions that are counterproductive, organization members experience frustration, anger, irritation, and dissatisfaction with their organization. Consequently, they form subgroups with trusted acquaintances and blame other subgroups for the organization’s dilemma. Frequently, they also blame authority figures and one another. Such phenomena were illustrated in the Abilene group by the “culprit” argument that occurred when we had returned to the comfort of the fan.
  6. Finally, if organization members do not deal with the generic issue—the inability to manage agreement—the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity. The Abilene group, for a variety of reasons, the most important of which was that it became conscious of the process, did not reach that point.

Watch for the signs. They are there. From Glenn Beck’s 2010 rally to Mort Zuckerman’s scathing critiques of Obama from the left, from the left leaning Denver Post editorializing for an end to the Keynesian tilt of Obamanomics to the support for repeal of the Obamacare, from the administration’s carping via Administration spokeshole, Jay Carney (and former spokeshole, Robert Gibbs) about the perpetual dissatisfaction of the “professional Left” to the reassertion of the power of the Tea Party Movement, from the growing unrest of the “regular” people of America toward our ruling political class to the concerns over issues rather than party, from the good people who are tired of being called racists, bigots, homophobes, nativists and Islamaphobes when the country that they live in is the most tolerant in the face of the Earth, from the American people who find the President’s golf outings and FLOTUS’s vacations to be insensitive to the conditions of the country to the small business owner seeing increased regulation and taxation in  their future, from retirees watching government waste their money and ignore their promises to them to the young people who are now realizing that they will be saddled with the crippling debt and expected to pay the bill, the culture is starting to stir.

I felt the same directional movement in 2010 prior to the midterm elections. Then, it was full of energy, flash and passion – this time the approach from the Right seems far more sober, serious and purposeful. The Tea Party hasn’t gone away, they have filtered out into local communities and are focusing on the hard work of politics – recruiting candidates, building organizations and getting the message out.

Even the Democrats are running out of hope – mark my word there is a change coming…the smell of “progressive” desperation is in the air. I am predicting today that the Republicans hold the House, they take the Senate and Mitt Romney will be our next president.

We still have a lot of work to do but I believe the momentum has shifted.

We are on the road to Abilene but it isn’t too late to turn around.

8 thoughts on “The Paradox of Bipartisanship: Stories From the Age of Emperor NerObama

  1. The word bipartisan means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out”. –George Carlin

    I learn a lot from your articles on management, they are full of good advice. Keep them coming.

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