Should we be celebrating the fact that Congress finally voted yesterday to allow the federal government to re-open and pay its bills? The bi-partisan agreement to re-open the government merely preserves the status quo for a short period, and leaves open the possibility of another round of brinksmanship very soon. And look what it took to achieve even that! Endless hours of meetings, sending home hundreds of thousands of federal employees, protests, and warnings from business and political leaders around the world of the dire consequences of inaction. None of that gives much reason to celebrate.
Nevertheless, as a mediator I can find something positive about this result, and when I tweeted a message to that effect, another mediator correctly identified the process we were both cheering as incrementalism. The theory of incrementalism holds that getting parties to agree on the small and simple issues helps create movement toward larger agreements. Psychologically, the process works by building trust between warring parties, and also by conditioning parties to enjoy the rewards of small agreements so as to increase their desire to continue to work on more difficult issues. So if Democrats and Republicans in Congress both derive some satisfaction and other benefits from making this small agreement, they might have an easier time making a more lasting agreement in December. That’s a pretty big “if” in this case, but that’s the theory anyway.
Logically incrementalism also works by cutting the legs off of arguments that parties might make to justify continued fighting. If Republicans in this case have been forced to admit that the federal government performs some useful functions and that it would be disastrous to allow a default, that might take some steam out of arguments by the more belligerent members of that caucus that government is always the enemy, or that refusing to raise the debt ceiling is a legitimate tactic. If Democrats have been forced to live a little longer with reduced levels of government funding, that may make it harder for them to raise spending levels in the future.
In other words, it seems there is both a positive and a negative way that parties in conflict can work toward agreement in incremental steps. The positive aspect lies in the good feelings aroused among the participants from achieving even small agreements. The negative part allows each side to use concessions by the other side to foreclose them from continuing the conflict.