In his review of Adam Phillips’ On Balance for The New York Review, Michael Greenberg cites a perspective on liberalism that may do much to explain why Barack Obama’s attempts to deal with the Republican Party have amounted to little more than fiasco. The source of the perspective is John Gray. Greenberg summarizes it as follows:
Modern liberalism is based on the premise that all views can be discussed, fundamentalism on the fact that there is nothing to discuss.
If we consider Republican ideology as a brand of fundamentalism that strays beyond religious convictions on matter such as abortion into rigidity in secular matters such as taxation, this summary makes a lot of sense. Back in my days of research in knowledge management, I used to observe that there is a difference between “shared understanding” (which had a lot of currency among knowledge management evangelists) and “negotiated understanding.” The latter is a situation in which parties with different opinions can “agree to disagree” and then move on to complete the work on whatever job happens to be facing them. To reduce this position to a simple example, when an automobile assembly line is forced to halt, it is not the time to argue over whether or not the blueprints were drawn to conform to all the necessary standards.
Every time Obama has made a concession to the Republicans, whether over taxes or environmental regulations, he has done so as a Goffman-like “move” towards advancing a conversation of negotiated understanding. Every time the Republicans have accepted the concession and rejected the move. As Greenberg puts it, they are firm in their conviction “that there is nothing to discuss.”
That firmness of conviction is the ultimate in stubbornness. Whatever animals may have become political party mascots, the animal most closely associated with stubbornness is the mule. Ultimately, Obama has never recognized the joke about how you get a mule to do any work for you (whack him on the head with a two-by-four to get his attention). It is about time for Obama to realize that the Oval Office is a seat of political authority and that there are times when negotiation has to be abandoned in favor of exerting authority.