Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Congress Paradox

In my poli sci days, one of my favorite observations was the wild disparity between Americans’ opinion of Congress in general, and their opinions of their own Representatives.  It boiled down to “they’re all bums, except for my guy.”  And that was true even before redistricting got completely out of hand.  Americans are perfectly capable of re-electing over 90 percent of the members of a body with a 10 percent approval rating.  In the case of Congress, we can’t even blame the electoral college.

I’ve seen something similar with academic administrators.

When the Great Recession was red in tooth and claw, we shed some administrative positions in order to maintain the faculty and staff ranks.  The idea was to protect students, even if it meant generating some headaches for those of us behind the scenes.  We got through the worst of it without laying off any faculty, which I considered a major victory.  A few years later, we have some experience with the new arrangements, and some basis for reflecting on them.

And the same dynamic holds.  Some of the same people who are quick to criticize “the administration” in general -- speaking of it as if it were the Borg, from Star Trek -- are equally quick to lay claim to their own dean.

In the case of Congress, I suspect that ideological, economic, and racial clustering are behind the paradox.  People who live in districts that vote 90 percent for one party, come hell or high water, may have a hard time taking seriously the need to compromise with the other party.  When everyone you know personally is on the same side, it’s easy to demonize, caricature, or write off the other side.  “Congress” becomes a sort of synecdoche for the diversity of the larger country.  Congress contains people who proudly proclaim opinions that nobody you know would be caught dead saying.  Therefore, it stands to a sort of emotional reason, it’s a bunch of idiots.

“The administration” functions in the same way.  The differences tend to be less about ideology in a grand sense and more about operational realities, but the emotional impact is the same.  When someone with a nifty concept opens with “why can’t we just…?” and gets in response an answer that comes off as detail-y, confusing, and negative, it’s easy to assume that the answer is really a symptom of something else.  That “something” might be personal animus, or laziness, or some sort of nefarious hidden agenda.  It might even be “bullshit,” which is a placeholder for “I don’t like it, and if I had a concrete reason, it would go here.”  But since the answer doesn’t match the questioner’s daily reality, it’s hard to give credence.

When you add the usual mix of human failings, mistakes, and, yes, personal issues to the mix, real conflicts can serve to amplify the impact of unnecessary ones.

I really don’t know what to do about Congress.  But I’m thinking that the campus issue lends itself to some level of fix, at least at a small or medium sized place.  

The key is in making other people’s realities visible and legible.  It’s easier to take seriously someone whose constraints and imperatives are clear, even if you believe -- perhaps correctly -- that you would navigate them differently.  

This week I had a wonderful discussion with a few groups on campus that were trying to come up with a different approach to a common issue.  It didn’t entirely “work,” if you define “work” as coming up with a brilliant new idea around which everyone rallied.  But it did “work” in the sense that as we talked through the various constraints and options, we came to a fuller appreciation of the complexity of the issue, and of why others hold the views they do.  People may still disagree, but it’s harder now to write off disagreement as a sign of stupidity or evil.  There’s a common basis for discussion now, which means that it’s easier for the discussions to be civil, in the best sense of the word.  

Once different perspectives become explicable -- not accepted, necessarily, but at least explicable -- then I’m hoping there will be less need for the demonized synecdoche.  We may not all vote the same way, but we’ll at least see some legitimacy in the larger picture.  In the America of 2014, I’d take that.