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Perpetual Halloween in Washington and the Ghost of Relationships Past

In later centuries, people began dressing as ghosts, demons and other malevolent creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. —

The broken relationships of our country’s leaders now place us in a perpetual season of Halloween. The ghost and goblins of relational vitriol now frighten us with never-ending default on the debt, divide in the midst of a glitch-filled rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and inaction on immigration. We have always had our differences but this relationship dysfunction has become a year-round house of horrors that every day feels more like the new normal. Jack Welch (former GE CEO) and Suzy Welch recently put it all in perspective: “With all the finger-pointing and name-calling going on in Washington these days, it’s hard to believe a delegation of kindergarten teachers from Dubuque hasn’t arrived to put an end to the nonsense.” It would really be rather funny were it not so risky.

Like Halloween — also known as the Festival of the Dead — the state of our politics has become especially dark, scary and surreal. Hope has given way to fear, fakery, disguise and even death (spirit separated from the body). It has become a place where intentions for the greater good have come to die. For those inside-the-Beltway it may feel like the center of the universe but outside it feels like the old catacombs where the dead were buried, the deranged lived and the ghosts hang out. Halloween, devoid of the heroes and leaders of celebratory seasons such as July 4th, Thanksgiving or Christmas, is filled with failed and dead leaders at a time we desperately need successful live ones.

It is scary and morbid to watch brawling leaders focus on destroying the other side while short fuses to mega-problems burn rapidly. The illusion by each side is that they are going to be a winner. The reality is there are only losers. I once told a couple of executives who were in a full scale war with each other that if they kept it up they would each inflict enough damage so that neither would be credible to lead. That is what happened — both were terminated. Does that ring a bell? As our Congressional approval rating slides to five percent and President Obama’s plummet to 37 percent it is clear that this death march has no winners. At some point the victims of collateral damage don’t care about who won — they just want the fighting to end and the solutions to big problems to begin.

There will always be disagreements but the gore and mayhem of trench warfare does not have to be the response to differences. Stories about leaders such as President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, each very strong in their mostly opposing views, working together to get things done, really resonate. We long for their spirits of strong conviction accompanied by strong belief in productive relationships that enabled mutual respect and working together. Only in the dismal world of Halloween is compromise blasphemy.

Trick or treat is a Halloween antic but it is not to be confused with a relationally productive approach to solving complicated problems that involve differences of opinion. It reflects a ghoulish environment where the game has overtaken substance and purpose. In the recent government shutdown battle both sides have accidentally slipped and told the truth about their glee at “winning the game” rather than winning a workable solution that all sides honor. The game that used to be a necessary but ugly part of politics now defines politics — tail exercises takeover and aggressively wags dog. Trick or treat Washington style has become a sordid form of bribe management for favor or money to support re-election with little in it for citizens. One quarter of all candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween and in a perpetual Halloween, treats gush year-round in Washington — mostly on borrowed money from the Chinese. Columnist Mark Steyn has called it, “looting the future to bribe the present.”

Disguise to confuse and repel the spirits was the genesis of Halloween costumes. Increasingly political leaders don costumes to disguise themselves, tell scary tales to demonize the opposition and exaggerate risks for the purpose of winning the inside-the-Beltway game via outside-the-Beltway funding and reelection. The goal — very Halloween-esque, exaggerate the risk and thereby move as many citizens as possible from concerned citizen to fearful zealot. Faux fear and anger are time-honored crutches of scary leaders. Add to that, congressional districts drawn to protect extreme partisans, greater funding from narrower and more partisan groups, and the manufactured drama of talk radio, cable TV and extremist blogs and sure enough it is a witch’s brew — ideologically extreme leaders crowned as royalty.

No surprise that more and more citizens are dressing up as scary creatures with exaggerated features, joining extreme tribes and going to battle. We can only imagine the hot costumes of 2013 — Ted Cruz and Government Shutdown or President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act. Accordingly the growth in citizens self-identified as ideologically extreme has increased from 29 percent in the 1970s to 49 percent today. Halloween leaders beget Halloween followers and vice versa.

Halloween can be a fun day but it is not a productive year-round relational model for running the country. The country and the world are weary from fright fatigue and have had enough — a recent NBC/WSJ poll reports an all-time high of 60 percent say fire every member of congress. It is time to move beyond Halloween, a dark time of honoring the ghosts of dead relationships past, and to move forward toward the light, life and productive relationships.

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