Some family therapists use a three-character behavior model I’ve found fascinating. I wonder, if we applied the theory to the roles politicians play in the ongoing fiscal-cliff, budget-meltdown soap opera, that we could set the roles aside to adopt a healthier “family” dynamic on today’s political stage.
Have you met, sweet Nell Fenwick who’s perennially tied to the railroad tracks by the Snidely Whiplash and soon to be freed by the dashing Dudley Do-Right? If not, be sure to check out a 1960s Rocky and Bullwinkle segment to witness the classic victim, persecutor and rescuer roles in action. Almost everyone mistakenly plays these roles at times. Stephan Karpman first introduced family therapists to that “drama triangle” in 1968. You’ve seen his three dysfunctional characters in cartoons, novels, TV dramas, possibly in your own kitchen and certainly in today’s political arena. What makes the roles so slippery is that we move from one to the next in politics’ daily drama. Perhaps we should introduce a fourth, more functional, character. I’ll get to that one in a minute.
When we lose a fight, are criticized or otherwise get kicked in the pants by others, we may take on the victim role, then turn around and try to kick that blame on down to the next person. Victim turns into perpetrator. Perpetrator turns victim. No one wants to be the final loser, as evidenced last week when $85 billion in federal budget funding cuts were triggered by the “sequester.” The Congressional Republicans and President Obama blamed each other in attempts to not be the last one kicked.
The sequester was a leverage tool that Congress and President Obama agreed to when the participants could not find common ground on how to reduce the debt ceiling in 2011. The upshot was an agreement called the Budget Control Act, which said that if Democrats and Republicans didn’t come to a deficit reduction agreement by March 1 of this year, automatic budget cuts would slash $1.2 trillion out of the federal budget over 10 years, starting with $85 billion out of the $3.5 trillion budget in 2013. Obviously neither party would be willing to carry out the promised 7.3 percent cut to military spending and 5.1 percent to domestic spending, and the two parties would negotiate a compromise.
But the lever didn’t work. Sequestration kicked in and the blame game began. You’ve likely heard parts of it. President Obama claimed that the budget cuts are the fault of Republicans who refused to negotiate, and that the resulting federal work reduction will start a bees’ nest of stinging consequences: Teachers and food-safety inspectors laid off, park employees and air traffic control centers understaffed, 750,000 jobs lost and a drop in GDP growth of 1.25 percent.
Republicans claimed that the sequester was the President’s idea in the first place and that another agreement, effective Jan. 1, to raise tax rates on earnings above $400,000 for individuals and above $450,000 for couples was the last time Republicans would accept tax increases as part of any negotiation. Besides, they contend, the cuts will mean a mere 2.2 percent reduction in irresponsible government spending.
Which brings us to the third player in this drama, the rescuer. That, my friends is sometimes you and me. Rescuers are those folks who pick a side, take up the banner and shout from the sidelines for our representatives to never give an inch. Instead of being willing to support compromise, we tend to see our political side as the underdog and play Dudley Do-Right to poor Nell, tied to the railroad tracks once again.
Rather than buying into the blame game as a victim, persecutor or rescuer, we need to introduce a leader into the paradigm. No one wants to be stuck in one of the first three roles, but it takes gumption to step out of them, take responsibility for our parts in the play and do sustained leadership.
Members of the Congress and the White House will have a chance to do just that now that they are again in charge of spreading the budget cuts around—we hope in such a way that the country functions securely and sustainably. They’d need to do what leaders do. First, they could create a vision of what cuts and sustainability look like for businesses and workers, for the wealthy, middle class and poor, for children and seniors, and for a right-sized military.
They’d need to be able to agree on the vision and effectively communicate it to each other and to the public in order to set a new budget in play. Perhaps, the most difficult task will be to put aside just enough of their party loyalties and personal ambitions to define, work toward and accomplish that vision of national unity.
The possibility of indiscriminate hacking of military and domestic spending threatens the country’s economic recovery and is still heading toward us down the tracks like an overdue freight train. I’m pretty sure that playing the victim-perpetrator-rescuer game won’t save poor Nell this time. Leadership is the only thing that will.