How Congress's high-stakes brinkmanship became the new normal
From Minnesota to the NFL to the halls of Congress, negotiations keep devolving into one high-stakes game of chicken after another, as public intransigence works against private compromise.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
While haggling and 11th-hour talks have always been hallmarks of business and political dealmaking, today’s media-saturated playing field have pushed these eyeball-to-eyeball tactics to a new extreme, say experts.
Some blame the media spotlight, flooding the shady backrooms where deals were once made in secret and forcing all parties to stake public positions – that are then hard to retreat from. Others point to an increasingly narcissistic culture that encourages Americans to believe they can always “have it their way.”
Whether it’s tweeted or televised, today’s media-saturated landscape “bathes any negotiations with a very harsh glare and tends to harden people’s positions,” says Gerald Skoning, a former Navy lawyer who specializes in labor law.
In “the ideal negotiation,” he says, “you can secret yourself away and not have anyone second-guessing you as you go along.”
During the 1980s, “President Reagan and Tip O’Neill had a relationship that allowed things to get done,” says David Primo, associate professor of political science at the University of Rochester. “It could not, probably, be duplicated in the hothouse media of today.”
Just look at the debt-ceiling standoff, says Melvin Dubnick, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. Compromise may yet emerge from all the grandstanding, he says, “but it won't be the same as it was under the old culture of Congress, where compromise was reached informally, often far away from the media glare, at a game of golf, or over lunch.”
In the current culture, he adds, classic brinkmanship has ratcheted up, he says. Any compromise now will result from so-called "blinkmanship" – where two parties stare each other down, waiting to see who blinks.
“This is really a perfect storm,” he says, pointing to the confluence of imminent default, the economy, and a large number of freshman politicians vowing not to compromise.
“It's not so surprising that in a narcissistic culture like ours, which tends to privilege the individual over the group, people are sticking to their positions and expecting others to give in,” she says via email. “One of the most prevalent messages in our culture is that we can tailor reality to fit our individual desires, and that we need not compromise.”
She points to the near-universal messages from advertising and the ever-customizable digital world. “From the fast-food chain's slogan ‘Have it your way,’ to the software giant's label ‘My Computer,’ to the social network MySpace,” she says, Americans are constantly urged to believe that their way is the best way.
When each party stands firm and expects the others to compromise, she says, “we end up with the sort of brinkmanship found today in politics and business.”