Steve Seibert: Our history of humility

“The greatness of America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, lies “in her ability to repair her faults.” In the face of crisis we band together, we compromise, we overcome.

These days, not so much. We have suffered through years of partisan bickering at all levels of government. But it is not the bickering that offends. It is the paralysis that results. Significant policy challenges remain unsolved and, at times, even unaddressed. That is the troublesome part. While political conflict is part of our national DNA, the inability to solve difficult problems is not.

Perhaps we should be a little less certain of how right we are and consider a healthy dose of humility.

You remember humility. It is a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to question our own certainty. Perhaps even more important, it is courage to compromise when appropriate.

Humility should not be confused with weakness or absence of conviction. The guiding stars of humble persons are usually quite clear; they just don’t blind one to believe in their own perfect knowledge.

Too often, acknowledging a contrary opinion has become unacceptable. To settle, to negotiate, to compromise is seen as weakness. We’ve forgotten that compromise “is the essence of the democratic process,” says Princeton historian Barbara B. Oberg, editor of the papers of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

We enjoy a unique legacy of humility in this country which most Americans have forgotten.

• The humility expressed by the 84-year-old Benjamin Franklin as he moved adoption of the U.S. Constitution, “I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: … the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others. … I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me … doubt a little of his own infallibility and … put his name to this instrument.”

• The humility shown by George Washington when he peacefully relinquished his command after the Revolution and later when he voluntarily stepped down as president after two terms. The latter decision prompted King George III to comment that in doing so, Washington was “the greatest man in the world.”

• The humility shown by Lincoln as he appointed his chief political rivals to the Cabinet because he needed their experience to run the country. It was also clear when Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address, not boasting of the bloody victory over the Confederacy, as would be expected, but poetically asking for peace and healing, “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Humility is the key that opens the door to purposeful dialogue. But we have lost dialogue to debate. We know so much, we are so sure of our opinions that we do not listen anymore. We rush in to tell our truths about the way things are and must be, not allowing there might be other truths and possibilities. We talk over each other, with not even a gap for politeness, much less for silence and consideration and that “doubting of your own infallibility.”

It reminds me of playing sandlot baseball as a kid. We would argue up to the point of the kid who owned the ball taking it and going home in a huff. Americans are losing the perspective necessary to know when the dispute has gone too far. We risk permanent paralysis by failing to even try to understand a different life experience or a contrary opinion, or to consider compromise.

No amount of persuasion will change another’s moral foundations. Rather, we should seek enough common ground to advance our deliberative democracy. This requires a commitment to communicate across the great divides of our time; the divides of partisanship, of race and culture, of age and gender, of wealth and poverty, of liberalism and conservatism, of knowledge and ignorance. Most important, it requires a return to humility.”

Steven M. Seibert is a former state agency head and served as a Pinellas County commissioner (1992-1999). He is a mediator, lawyer and policy adviser (and president of the Asteroids Club). This article originally appeared in the Tampa Bay Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

A primer on playing “Beat the Clock” with the fiscal cliff when America needs the win

In the Washington Post this week, Jonathan Haidt and Hal Movius offer up their expertise to help the President and Congress succeed at unwinding their complicated impasse while we perch teetering atop the fiscal cliff. Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner, we know you’re very busy so here’s the (aptly named) Cliff Notes version:

1. Describe progress in terms of packages rather than single axis wins or losses – that way “the base” can find a margin of success somewhere in the details.

2. Call for shared sacrifice. People are powerfully good at rising to this call (think WWII and immediately following 9/11).

3. Break impasses with contingent agreements. With dueling experts and statistics, partisan projections about the results of certain actions take wildly different directions. Solve this problem by structuring “if…then…” statements in the agreement to cover their worst fears.

4. Don’t say “compromise” too often. The base is likely to see compromise on what they view as moral issues as immoral.

5. Invoke the virtue of humility, a staple of our founding fathers.

Now, if you don’t have to personally get back to the fiscal cliff negotiations, you must now read the whole piece as it involves untying shoelaces, throwing tomatoes and some exceptionally cool founding father quotes.

Jon Meachem on a little secret we stumbled upon

“[President Thomas Jefferson] used the table – the art of cuisine, of entertaining… those Virginia rites of hospitality that he grew up with – to move opinion in his direction. It doesn’t mean that it created a bipartisan Valhalla. But life is lived on the margins in politics and every once in a while, when you need a vote – you’re more likely to get the benefit of the doubt from someone with whom you’ve broken bread and who knows what your eyes look like and what your voice sounds like than you are from some distant remote figure.” – Jon Meachem, author of “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power”