Regardless of our individual political leanings, advocates of mediation should be concerned by the bruising midterm campaign season that has just ended, and by the prospect of gridlock and increased partisanship in the next session of Congress. In mediator's terms, we are facing the likelihood of impasse. Conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans have been drummed out of both parties, leaving the more doctrinaire members dominant. Newly energized Republicans have already announced that they have no appetite for compromise. And Democrats have already started attributing the diminished enthusiasm of their base to the administration's willingness to make concessions to the opposition. It will take all of the president's mediator-like skills to make progress in this situation. Alternatively, he may abandon those instincts and take a more "Give 'em hell, Harry" approach to governing, which would probably please sizable elements of his supporters.
The public in general, and mediators in particular, responded positively in 2008 to candidate Obama's promises of a new kind of politics in which people of different views would work together constructively and respectfully to solve the country's pressing problems, instead of acting in our usual divisive and destructive manner. That hasn't exactly happened, has it? And it wasn't for lack of trying on the president's part. But critics on the left have relentlessly attacked the administration for being too conciliatory, while critics on the right have adopted a deliberate strategy of opposing anything the administration has proposed. It seems as though hardly anyone is still attracted to the vision articulated in Barack Obama's electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention in which he implored us to get beyond red states and blue states and start identifying ourselves as part of the United States. Yet that vision, which many would probably now dismiss as hopelessly naive, was what propelled Obama to the forefront of the presidential race, and attracted millions to support his candidacy.
What has happened in our politics the last couple of years shows how hard it is to get past our propensity to view the world in adversarial terms. If the president has been unable to sell the public on the idea of peacefully resolving our political conflicts, how are mediators going to be able to sell the public on the idea of peacefully resolving private disputes?
Update (11/5): An expanded version of this post appears on my political blog. And a follow-up post will no doubt be necessary at some point on the subject of how you negotiate with people who say they will not compromise.