As he has done since the beginning of his campaign, Barack Obama likes to talk about a new kind of politics in which people sit at the same table and talk to one another instead of shaking their fists at one another. Here he is this week bragging about bringing together different players in both the energy debate and the health care debate. If these initiatives bear fruit, do they herald a new dominant mode of problem-solving? Does President Obama reject the whole idea of dialectics that has been so influential in political philosophy, in favor of more positively-reinforcing ways of achieving change? Can he really get the political system to work in this new way?
The rise of mediation as a means of dispute resolution can be seen as a similar movement questioning the prevailing philosophy that truth and justice can only be obtained through an adversarial process. Instead of expecting to achieve a positive result through the clash of opposing ideas or interests, mediators attempt to maximize the returns for each side by asking the parties to recognize the weight of the other side’s positions. Instead of attempting to fight and defeat the opposing interests, each side is encouraged to accommodate those interests to the extent they can do so consistently with their own goals.
In mediation, the goal is a negotiated agreement with both sides feeling that they achieved a positive result, or at least with neither side feeling like the loser. If the President succeeds in transforming our politics in a similar manner, he may help create an even more receptive climate for and understanding of the mediation process.
P.S. (May 19, 2009):
After I posted this, it occurred to me that other mediators must have recognized the mediator-like qualities in Barack Obama even during the campaign, and sure enough I found some articles hailing the potential of a new mediator-in-chief. Here’s one by James Melamed, and another by Diane Levin. Of course, I also want to give myself some credit for my own early recognition of what was new about Obama’s candidacy, as shown for example in a post from November 2007, comparing the styles of the presidential candidates to the prevailing modes of dispute resolution.