Could politicians benefit from mediation?

Last week’s post explored whether mediation could play a direct role in democratic deliberation. This would involve bypassing politicians to create consensus on social issues. This week’s post explores a more modest proposal. Could mediation help resolve policy impasses among lawmakers?

Tim Kaine, a former Governor of Virginia and Hillary Clinton’s Vice Presidential running mate, proposed this idea in a panel discussion in 2018. Kaine learned the power of mediation as a lawyer and, as Governor, would often bring in trained mediators to resolve policy disputes within government.

Kaine suggests that federal lawmakers could also benefit from mediation. Facilitative mediation aims to avoid positional bargaining and rights-based language in favour of articulating interests. This makes it more likely parties will compromise on their initial positions and reach a mutual agreement.

Mediation among lawmakers could help overcome stalemates in the legislative process. It could also reduce partisanship. Mediation involves listening to the other parties articulate their concerns in a non-adversarial way. This could help foster understanding and common ground across political divides.

However, Kaine also reflects upon why politicians may resist mediation. ‘In policy,’ he explains, ‘there is often a political motive to keep a dispute going than resolve it.’ Politicians benefit from concealing or denying common ground. They use disagreements to raise funds, energise their base and assign blame.

These factors give politicians disincentives to listen to people they don’t agree with. Kaine observes that ‘listening is the lost art in life right now’ and ‘people don’t feel like anybody listens to them.’ Mediators, by contrast, ‘are trained listeners.’ They ‘are trained to find commonalities that people can’t see.’

A further benefit of mediation in politics, as Robert Benjamin notes, could be to encourage a more constructive approach to conflict among the general public. Benjamin argues that ‘[l]eadership style … directly influences the willingness or hesitancy of people to consider negotiation or mediation … in daily life.’

If political leadership values deliberation, inclusion and consensus, then we might expect to see these values throughout the community. On the other hand, if politicians prioritise power over compromise and depict all disputes as zero-sum games, then mediation may be devalued across society as a whole.

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