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”

Differences in liberal vs. conservative brain stucture found

A British study released Thursday in Current Biology further supports theories that there far more to political difference than just who we vote for. It’s already been shown that there are differing levels of brain activity in the amygdala and upper brain cortex in liberals and conservatives, but apparently there is also a difference in the size of each part of the brain. Conservatives have more brain mass in their amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear. Liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex which is associated with managing uncertainty and conflict. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether the political bent affected the size of the brain region or if the brain differences started the whole shebang. It continues to be our assertion that it’s understanding where people are coming from – differences in brain and all – that makes all the difference in having a constructive civic dialogue with them.

An editorial comment: I’ve seen this fascinating study quoted in publications with a liberal bent with the subtle undertone of superiority, but it’s important to realize that fear can be a pretty useful intuition in all sorts of situations (read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear). Fear can lead to appropriate levels of caution in situations requiring thoughtful action. Fear can save your life. Our CivilPolitics.org speakers last week – Matt Motyl in person and Jon Haidt by Skype – both likened conservatives to the brake and liberals as the gas. Both pretty dang important in how the car functions, eh? So thumbs down on the “we’re smarter than you” line of argument, even if it’s politely covert. Respectfully, that’s part of what’s gotten us where we are, where conservatives know to their core that there are ways that we’re messing up badly in our culture and liberals want to know what degrees earned them the right to make the assertion. Plus, there are some things that require a little certainty and can’t just hang forever in limbo. This is not to mention the broader basis for moral reasoning among conservatives that Haidt & Motyl’s studies show (a topic for another day).

But a take-home lesson for conservatives might be that it’s worth submitting some of the fear mongering served up with stunning regularity to win your vote to a little fact-checking. Your brain is a handy tool for a fear that is real, but might be at risk of being hijacked by the demagogues for fears that simply are not.

I wonder if it’s possible for us to stop hating the differences between us and start appreciating them as a tool in civic decision-making? Our childish squabbling is about as ridiculous as arguing whether the gas or the brake pedal is most important in driving a car. And a stunning number of us seem to be arguing to just get rid of one the pedals.