N 2007, DEMOCRATIC SENATOR HARRY REID introduced a bill that Republican President George W. Bush supported. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act would have enhanced border security and enforcement to hinder illegal immigration while allowing for a path to citizenship for the millions of people who had already entered the country illegally. As the support of Reid and Bush suggested, the bill contained provisions favored by each party. Yet it never even came to a vote, killed by forces on both sides of the debate who refused to accept elements that didn’t conform to their vision of the ideal solution.

For Jane Mansbridge, that piece of failed legislation illustrates, as she puts it, that “polarization in the U.S. Congress is the new normal; it is here to stay for the foreseeable future.” But, she says, even enemies can negotiate. Mansbridge, the Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, in her term as president of the American Political Science Association from 2012 to 2013, headed a task force that produced a report, “Negotiating Agreement in Politics,” and later a book, Political Negotiation, that she coedited and to which she contributed.

“We’re not saying everything can be negotiated,” Mansbridge says. “We’re saying that more things can be negotiated than people think. A lot more.”

As she notes, negotiation faces distinct roadblocks in the U.S. political system because of our strong separation of powers. Different parties often control different branches of government, and close two-party competition inspires each side to block any achievements by the other. Yet, drawing on lessons from other democracies and on negotiation theory, Mansbridge recommends specific “rules of political engagement” that have been shown to produce fruitful results.

These rules facilitate “deliberative” negotiation, which rests on each party’s not only finding out as much as possible about the needs and interests of the other but also seeking fair compromises. The “rules” include long-term repeated interaction, which builds mutual respect among adversaries; closed-door interaction, which allows parties to eschew grandstanding for more-honest debate; “side payments” or incentives, whereby parties offer each other enticements in order to bring about agreement; and “penalty defaults,” which threaten consequences that neither side wants if they do not come to agreement.

Mansbridge says that public acceptance of a negotiation hinges on trusting the individual negotiators. In addition, for side payments to be justifiable, they must be good for the country, not just for the election prospects of one member of Congress. Some of the rules of engagement may on the surface appear contrary to democratic ideals. For example, citizens may disapprove of elected representatives negotiating in private. Yet she contends that well-intentioned “sunshine laws” that give public access to meetings have diminished the ability of congressional committee members to work together, build trust, and develop expertise.

“We’ve jumped on transparency as a fix for something that’s deeper,” she says. “In the context of negotiation, it’s not a good fix. It has huge costs for negotiation.”

Mansbridge cites the Clean Air Act of 1990 as an example of a deliberative negotiation that produced a widely accepted policy. That negotiation involved two congressmen, Senator Timothy Wirth, Democrat from Colorado, and Senator John Heinz, Republican from Pennsylvania, whose constituencies had opposing interests. Yet they were also longtime friends with a mutual interest in and understanding of environmental issues. They helped forge an agreement that balanced the interests of business and environmentalists, bolstered by another important element in negotiations: the acceptance of facts generated by a neutral party, in that case the scientific community’s consensus on the causes of acid rain.

In contrast to more-recent attempts regarding immigration reform and many other issues the country faces, the passage of the Clean Air Act was made possible by major efforts to find out what each side really needed most. It also required compromise. As Arlen Specter, then-Republican senator from Pennsylvania, said about the failure of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which he supported, “There is nothing inappropriate about the politics of compromise. That means we sacrifice the better for the good.”

In fact, Mansbridge notes, the United States has long embraced compromise as a necessary and normal part of commerce: “Businesspeople don’t have a problem with compromise; they do it all the time,” she says. “It’s the politics of honor, the politics of ideology, that has a problem with compromise. Compromise has become more ‘dirty’ as we’ve moved from acting like businesspeople to acting like ideologues.”

Mansbridge points to data showing that ideology increasingly trumps any desire to negotiate. In fact, she says we have greater polarization now in Congress than at any other time in the past 150 years—both by the most advanced measures and by the simple measure of how few times lawmakers vote with the other party. She and her colleagues have determined that we’ve reached this point of deadlock because of three main factors: a realignment following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which caused many white voters to leave the Democratic Party and resulted in more homogeneity of views within the parties (there are far fewer liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats than there once were);  the closeness of elections since 1980, which inspires each party to attempt to prevent the other from gaining the slightest advantage; and income inequality, which is now again at the peak it reached during the Gilded Age, in exact parallel with polarization. That polarization produces stalemate and inaction, just as it did at the turn of the century.

The stakes are higher now than ever, Mansbridge argues. When underlying processes are moving in a bad direction, inaction does not simply retard progress; it lets things continue to worsen—from issues the left cares about, such as climate change, to those the right cares about, such as the national debt.

The challenge is to persuade people that it’s beneficial to negotiate even with their enemies, Mansbridge says. She cites the phenomenon of “negotiation myopia,” which causes people to fail to see their own advantage in embarking on a negotiation and mutual agreement. One of the most harmful types of myopia, she notes, is fixed-pie bias, which leads people to presume that if one party gains in a negotiation, the other party by definition loses. Often this bias is stronger in politics than in commercial negotiations because of the competitive nature of the electoral process. Self-serving bias, which causes over optimism and leads people to see issues through the lens of their own interests, also impedes negotiation. In politics, this bias causes each side to expect too much from a negotiation. It also leads parties to assign nefarious motives to the other side while attributing their own motives to reasoned judgment.

Trust, close relationships, and a commitment to fairness, which spurred the negotiations surrounding the Clean Air Act, help overcome these biases, according to Mansbridge. These elements of deliberative negotiation—rare in a time of extreme political polarization—allow parties to exchange ideas that can facilitate mutual gains and create opportunities for both sides to “expand the pie.” But even in situations of little trust, few close relationships, and little commitment to fairness, a keen understanding of the other’s interests, arrived at by asking questions and learning the other’s constraints and needs, can produce successful negotiation under the “rules of engagement” that she and her colleagues advocate.

“The idea is that when we design institutions we should be thinking consciously of how to design them to be partial cures for the mistakes our brains habitually make,” says Mansbridge. “That’s how you get the rules of political engagement.”

The professor is trying to impart those lessons to the next generation of leaders. She has taught political science for more than 40 years, nearly 20 of them at the Kennedy School, where she now teaches Democratic Theory. Prior to her academic career, she was involved in the women’s movement of the late 1960s, and later in the fight to enact the Equal Rights Amendment. Her experience in social movements sparked her interest in how to make democracy work better—something she explored in her first book, Beyond Adversary Democracy, published in 1980.

Her interest in improving democracy has only grown over the years, she says. Now, however, her motivation is different than it was when she was a young activist.

“Whereas my interest in making democracy work in the ’60s was based in hope, my interest now is based in fear,” Mansbridge says. “We’re entering a period in human life in which we’ve never been more interdependent. That growing interdependence is producing an exponentially growing number of situations that require regulation. To regulate efficiently and with legitimacy, we need to come as close as possible to agreement. That agreement usually requires negotiation.” Thinking of the Paris climate talks, she adds, “If we don’t learn how to negotiate better quickly, the result might be disaster.”

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