TURNER: How to Work Across the Aisle

by Tony Turner

When I look today at the stories coming through variety of media channels, I can’t help but think that maybe our democracy at the national, state and in some cases, local levels is at an impasse.

Our politics seem toxic with warfare between the two parties and our norms seem to have collapsed. Political institutions at most levels are deteriorating with Democrats and Republicans cutting off contact with each other instead of hearing each other out. The goal of getting to some kind of next step for the mutual benefit of everyone has been thrown out the window.

And, when you think about all the activities of government: tax, regulate, grant, subsidize, educate, budget, produce information, structure our private rights, finance, contract, reform, provide services and provide models for economic activity, etc. the situation, is, well, downright scary. The partisan trench warfare has got to come to an end. It’s driving us all crazy.

It’s time we require elected officials take pause and get back to the fundamentals of what real democracy is all about and get the republic (e.g., power is held by the people and their elected representatives) back to working again and with successful outputs. Here’s my take on how they can renew and work better across the aisle.

Have a team perspective. Practice for a football team requires the players to either play defense or offense and play each other. Regardless they still represent a team despite the on-the-field rivalry to ensure an adequate practice. They all wear the same jersey and ultimately want to win the games in the official season. What can you do to help bring about teamwork in your party and across the aisle? Do you need new leaders or new communication standards, or combination? Ask and listen. Teams get better results than “groups”; they have complimentary skills and common goals. Elected officials should remember they represent people for the collective benefit of our nation, our state, our town, and not their own.

Understand where your opponent is coming from? Don’t have a paradigm that the other political party is your enemy. They’re not. They do have different beliefs or desires. What are they and why? Be curious about yourself to understand why you are objecting so strongly. Do you really know your colleague personally—their story? Collaborate with your most fierce opponent somehow. Listen for the 10-20% you actually agree with and start your response from there. If it is an emotional reaction you are having, don’t respond at all in that moment. Are you objecting because the political bosses are insisting you vote a certain way or that you truly see a bigger benefit if it were “your way?” Is their position constituent driven, party boss driven, ambition, driven by interest groups or good old-fashioned values and merits based on the strength of the proposal? What is your position being driven by: fear, need for approval or control, avoiding conflict or old grudges maybe? The opposing side is made up of people—they have feelings, personal lives, stress, sensitivities, etc. just like you—is your approach taking into consideration all these things? Lastly, maybe you have a “seeing” problem, noting you have to be able to work with ambiguity, complexity and possess agility yet stay grounded. Your truth depends on where you stand so speak your truth but be open to other ways of seeing.

Timing is everything. From a process and political point of view timing is everything. When change is proposed and you are against it, get on board the train early and help guide the opposition, proactively informing your opponent very early on where you stand and why and vice versa if you support the change. However, constantly being resistant or in opposition feels powerful but can be destructive and reduce your effectiveness over time. Your style of opposition should be to let the other side down at levels that are sustainable so you don’t lose that effectiveness and not be heard. Rarely, if ever, should you introduce something entirely new at the last minute or just as a decision is being made.

Have a process for vetting a proposal. Your colleagues should know how you plan to or have historically
evaluated a proposal and not just say no because it’s from across the aisle or from someone with whom
you are holding a grudge. This is about having a “legislative brand.” One notable resource for vetting
policy and proposals is the book entitled A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis by public policy professors
Eugene Bardach and Eric Patashnik of UC-Berkeley and Brown University, respectively. They discuss the
following eight step process: 1. Define the Problem 2. Assemble Some Evidence (e.g., gather some
information) 3. Build Alternatives 4. Select the Criteria (for making the decision) 5. Project the OutcomesConfront the Trade-Offs 7. Narrow and Decide and then, 8. Tell Your Story. “These steps are not
necessarily taken in precisely this order, nor are of then necessarily significant in every problem.
However, an effort to define the problem is usually the right starting place, and telling the story is
almost inevitably the ending point. Constructing alternatives and selecting criteria for evaluating them
surely come toward the beginning of the process. Assembling some evidence is actually a step the recurs
throughout the entire process, and it applies particularly to efforts to define the problem and to project
the outcomes of the alternatives.”1

It’s time that we require renewal from our elected officials and get back to working across the aisle with
a sense of fairness, legitimacy and dignity. It’s time they repledge their allegiance to truly fulfill the job in
the ways they were elected to.

  1. Bardach, Eugene and Eric M. Patashnik, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis, Sixth Edition, page xvi, Washington, D.C. CQ Press, 2020.

Tony Turner most recently served as a member of the Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation and former founder and CEO of an online regulatory software company based in Conn; he is currently the founder and CEO of My Voting Power Greenwich (MVPGreenwich), a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to enabling ease of voting and more informed voter decisions by 18–35-year-olds. He resides in Old Greenwich, CT.