This month’s Supreme Court saga was not America’s finest hour. Regardless of how you feel about Brett Kavanaugh, you probably agreed that the whole affair was beneath our democratic institutions.
It’s hard to see it any other way. People are angry, torn apart by the zero-sum game they’ve seen playing out — not just over a court nomination, but in virtually every other public policy debate and election campaign. Zero-sum means “I win, you lose.” It means “win at all costs” and “there’s no space for you.” It’s where any tactic will do in order to win. And in the end, nothing works because of our division. Doesn’t democracy require something finer than that?
How ironic that the deep divisions we witnessed followed a month after America came together to celebrate the life of the late senator John McCain, a true American hero who embodied a positive, constructive and thoroughly civil approach to public service. His career showed us that good things can happen when we put aside our own priorities and partisanship to serve a greater purpose — to find “win-win” solutions, where the two sides of any debate can both emerge with the feeling that they have accomplished something positive and were respected by the process.
Zero-sum means someone will always lose
The alternative is zero-sum. Throughout my career, I have worked it both ways and I’ve learned from the experience. In Congress I was part of a bipartisan team that balanced the federal budget for the first time in decades. My side didn’t get everything it wanted — neither did the other side — but we were both willing to give a little to achieve something we all believed was important for our country.
The same was true for welfare and Pentagon reform, two other big efforts in which I had a part. Nothing came easy. Negotiations were often complex and animated. But no one had a “my way or the highway” mentality because we all kept striving toward shared goals: helping families become self-sufficient, strengthening our military by making it more efficient, or modernizing our Armed Forces to face new, post-Cold War challenges.
I admit, I have tried the all-or-nothing approach and failed. When I first became governor in 2011, I worked with state legislators to roll back collective bargaining for public employees. A law to supposedly save money for taxpayers left nothing on the negotiating table for hundreds of thousands of unionized public workers. Not surprisingly, it was handily overturned at the ballot box, and the reason was simple: when we try to have it all our way, we inevitably fail.
I learned from that failure, however, and some of our administration’s best progress in the years that followed came from collaboration and shared ideas. Working together, we helped create 550,000 new private-sector jobs in our state and ensured that that 700,000 more Ohioans get health care. We worked collaboratively with people on both sides of a heated issue to create new standards for community policing and did the same to find common sense proposals for reducing gun violence.
We pooled state and local resources in fighting opiate addiction, and now prescribed opiate deaths are at an eight-year low and heroin overdoses have fallen to four-year lows. We haven’t gotten everything right, but we’ve shown what can happen when people put their own agendas second and strive for goals that benefit everyone.
Seeing what we’ve accomplished in Ohio with a united approach, I think that we are overdue, nationally, for a really deep breath to cool off and think about the lost art of listening to one another. Relearning that represents a mighty U-turn from our emerging culture of conflict, and it begins with our leaders. They must lead by replacing the constant stream of combative talk with civil discourse and cooperation.
Leave culture of conflict and listen to others
When our leaders start, the public will follow — because we know Americans have it in them to achieve great things when they come together. The examples are all around us: the professional first responders and ordinary citizens who braved a rain of bullets to save others at the Las Vegas mass shooting or the “Cajun Navy” of fishermen and weekend boaters who saved strangers trapped in trees or on rooftops after Hurricane Harvey.
They weren’t playing a zero-sum game, nor were they unique. We’ve seen their kind of selfless response in so many natural disasters and man-made tragedies of late — ordinary people who do extraordinary things when they put themselves second and the needs of others first.
Stories like these give me hope and confidence that our nation can see through the peril of zero-sum games and return to its true heart. It starts when the leaders of our country — in politics, sports, business, religion and other areas — remember their duty to listen to one another and work for the greater, higher good of a united America.
That is who we are, and who we need to be, to light the way for a world that continues to need America’s leadership in so many ways. Together we — you and me — can make it work, because we’ve done it before.
John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, was a Republican House member from 1983 to 2001. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnKasich