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Tennis and the Right-Left Deadlock, Part 1

How a new axis can save the American political conversation.

By Scott Francisco  |  October 4, 2011

"No Child Left Behind", "listeria outbreaks", "youth protests on Wall Street", "forests falling to beetle plagues", "terrorist leaders killed by drones", "massive unemployment", "national debt" and "metallic hip replacement failures".

These are a just a few of the headlines in today's New York Times.  All are serious issues and despite any attempts at journalistic objectivity all have political implications.

We can feel the push-and-pull in calls for "stricter regulations", or for "less bureaucracy and red tape."  The simple beauty of our American political discourse, with the pent up frustrations of a two-party system exploding in the "Opinions" column a few pages beyond.

The Big Apple had a brief respite from this mess when for the two blissful weeks of the US Open tennis took center stage.  We were treated to amazing athletes pushing the boundaries, new players, new rivalries and new techniques set amidst centuries-old traditions.  Certainly it was something less fraught and frustrating than the economic, social and political issues bearing down on us.

Having said this, sports are at their best when they provide a metaphor for something bigger; and in this case they do.  As we look back at the tennis tournament and forwards to our upcoming election, I believe the duels and drama in Flushing Meadows can help provide structure to our collective aspirations and some new vocabulary to help break the deadlock and miscommunication that plagues our national discourse.

Climate Change

The East Coast of America weathered Hurricane Irene just in time to keep this year's US Open on schedule.  But as the winds died and the waters subsided, the US found itself back in the middle of a more dangerous storm: a whirlwind of distrust, malicious rhetoric, media mongering, name-calling, cultural stigmatization, character assassinations and policy-poisoning.

None of these climate conditions are really new, but their growing intensity and frequency suggests a new kind of global warming.  The temperature is rising and things seem to be getting worse: Our government in gridlock, local and international economies stalling, policies killed, failing to launch, or backfiring after billions of taxpayer dollars spent.

How is it that America has ended up trapped in this vicious cycle?  Are our leaders really so spiteful and intransigent as to throw the country and its people into the teeth of the gale to make a self-serving point?

I believe the answer is mostly 'no'.  Even at the extreme sides of Congress, the Senate, or even Wall Street, these are mostly decent well-intentioned people – people with whom you could have a good conversation with over dinner, or entrust to babysit your kids.  This fact points to a system with serious problems.

Language Limitations

This is not a problem with "the liberals" or "the conservatives," "the elites" or "the rednecks."  I believe it is a structural problem with the American game itself, thwarting our ability to 'play' – to communicate, resolve conflicts, compromise and take action in a way that is productive and consistent with our own experience and beliefs, let alone those who disagree with us.  This systemic problem is making good people act crazy, smash their racquets, attack the judges, cheat repeatedly and berate their own fans.

This behavior may seem irrational or juvenile. So did the behavior of Helen Keller, and her amazing story provides some insight.

Born blind and deaf, Keller's life began as a continuous string of fits and tantrums much like those we see right now in American society.  Her parents thought she was deranged.

But Helen was not in fact crazy or mentally deficient. She simply did not have language – no framework for expression or communication.

Later in life as a successful writer, Keller described how the discovery of language at the water pump, through the dedicated work of her teacher Anne Sullivan, brought her instantly out of darkness, confusion and rage and into the human community.  Her conflicts did not immediately disappear, and her physical handicaps never did, but her life was given meaning and structure.  Keller could become an integral part of human society once she was able to fully communicate.

America is likewise plagued by an "incomplete language" to describe the forces that channel our socio-political behavior, and we are experiencing the tantrums to match.

From a young age Americans are taught that there are two great forces that shape our economy and society.  One force is the hand of the elected government which regulates our lives on behalf of the "common good"; the other is Adam Smith's "invisible hand" that stimulates "continuous improvement" through direct economic competition and incentives.

These two independent but interacting 'systems' provide an ideological framework represented by a single axis, with "Free Market" at one end, and "Regulation" at the other. We talk about these two systems at work in virtually every significant national challenge like education, healthcare, employment, energy and food. Here are some examples of the kind of responses or solutions that these two systems offer to a list of common problems:

Our one-dimensional framework:
A left-right axis with "Regulation" at one end and "Free Market" at the other.

  Free Market
(rules, policies, enforcement) Problem (competition, incentives, investment)
International Tennis Federation, officials, umpires, rules, lines, calls Tennis Prize money, sponsorships deals, titles, rankings
NCLB, standardized testing, teachers unions, compulsory school attendance laws Education Private/Charter Schools, move to a better neighborhood, hire a tutor, for-profit colleges, individual choice
Quotas, farm subsidies, protection, USDA regulations Agriculture Commodities markets, food prices, consumer choice, international competition/imports
Regulatory Reforms, Federal Deposit Insurance, "Too Big to Fail", Federal Reserve Banking & Finance Stock market, let companies experiment, let them fail, invest at your own risk, buyer beware!
Minimum wage, New Deal, stimulus packages, Protectionism, Labor Unions, jobs programs, gov. funded retraining Employment Jobs follow demand for labor and skills, lower taxes, remove barriers, free trade, competition for compensation
Universal Health Care, tax "sugary drinks", smoking bans, seatbelt/helmet laws, Tort reform, mandatory vaccines, physician billing limits Health For-Profit Hospitals, pharma market, pay as you go, "health is wealth" incentives, no limits on physician pay, patient lawsuits
Public safety/environmental regulations, special taxes, subsidies for clean energy, ban incandescent light bulbs, LEED certification, Energy Policy Act, Kyoto Agreement Energy Supply and demand, global oil market, carbon trading, consumer choice, "drill-baby-drill!", allow scarcity to drive price increase and innovation
National/Global laws, treaties and accords, United Nations, gun laws, military conscription Defense & Security International weapons trade (sell to whoever has the money), military service compensation, mercenaries
Coffee Industry Regulation Act, Growers and Roasters Associations, temperature regulations and standards Good Coffee Buy only the best, start a coffee company, punish bad coffee through poor sales
Aparthide, forced segregation, civil rights laws, anti-segregation, affirmative action, anti "hate" laws, school busing, racial quotas Race Relations & Equality Meritocracy, create opportunity and incentives, color-blind markets
Environmental protection laws, National Parks, nature preserves, Endangered Species Act, EPA, carbon tax Environment Markets for water, air and carbon, place economic value on environment, privatize land management and parks, user fees for everything

Americans slide back and forth along the Market / Regulation axis in response to life experience or compelling rhetoric, but this framework is basically all we've got in terms of our common language: A two-idea system, leading to a two-party system.

Virtually all American viewpoints, policy, rhetoric (and even individuals themselves) are expected to place themselves somewhere along this one-dimensional axis. There is no issue so either basic or so complex that it cannot be distilled into a "right" or "left" viewpoint; inherent contradictions are papered over or left unsaid.

If we wonder why we have low voter turnout, it is largely that our one-dimensional ideological framework is linguistically dysfunctional!

It may be easy to sell. It makes for easy sound-bites and headlines. But it is an incomplete language.

Even for those who have happily adopted a "conservative" or "liberal" label, this framework does not allow anywhere near full expression or complete problem-solving strategy. It shuts out nuanced explanations, ideas or critiques that describe our own real life experience.

This vital disconnect between language and reality has Americans angry and confused.  Leaders and voters are lashing out in every direction without quite knowing why. In any professional field or craft, language is the foundation for understanding, collaboration and problem solving. Try to imagine a doctor, engineer, sailor or seamstress operating without the specific language and vocabulary that structures their knowledge and skill.   

In the next article in this series, we'll return to the game of tennis.  We'll explore the additional axis in tennis play and discourse and highlight what's missing in the way Americans talk and think about politics.  This is important - we can't find solutions to our many problems without changing our thinking, and thinking begins with our language.