It's a symbol

Bruce Lear reflects on the federal government shutdown, drawing on 30-plus years of experience negotiating educator contracts. -promoted by Laura Belin

For some, symbols are more important than solutions. Sound bites outrank substance, and winning will trump a wall any day.

This fight isn’t about a wall. It’s about a symbol to gin a gullible base. In President Donald Trump’s mind, it’s win-win. If he doesn’t get his wall, he has the symbol of the wall. If he does, he can brag, “Look at that big beautiful wall I built for you.” It’s a narcissist’s dream. It’s the public’s nightmare.

In northwest Iowa, the wall is akin to the 30-year quest to finish Highway 20. The huge difference is this project was needed. For 30 years, politicians could rail against the elites in Des Moines and Washington about its lack of progress. Once completed, every politician and their second cousin took credit. In fact, based on the recent TV ads and campaign brochures, you would think a few Republican senators actually drove the pavers and painted the final lines.

So, the two sides are really not negotiating over a wall. They are fighting over a symbol not a solution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls it immoral and Donald Trump calls it essential. How does this showdown end?

But wait, if symbols weren’t important, there wouldn’t be the righteous indignation when someone disrespects the flags or shoots an eagle. These symbols are powerful and sacred. Trump wants to make his wall one of those.

Just for a second, let’s look at some facts. For those who have been following this story closely, “Captain Obvious” begins to write. This is a Trump shutdown. No matter how he spins, he can’t avoid what he said during his second now famous “Nancy and Chuck” meeting on December 11, 2018. “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”

According to a recent national poll by Quinnipiac, only 44 percent of Americans support building some type of wall, and 65 percent believe the president should not shut down government. But the shutdown hasn’t really touched those 65 percent yet, because it hasn’t hit main street America yet.

I spent 30-plus years negotiating educator contracts and found symbols often to be the final hurdle to getting a settlement. One or two people on a side would dig in on something and hold up an entire bargain to get what they wanted.

I would be a rich guy if I had a dime for every time I heard, “It’s a matter of principle.” Most of the time it wasn’t. Instead, it was something a person was over-invested in having happen. For the person obsessed with the symbol, calling something a matter of principle simply elevated even the smallest issue to a symbol everyone should respect.

For example, I remember spending hours during a few bargains arguing about if an educator could leave the building during his/her lunch period or planning period. For teachers, secretaries, and assistants, it was a matter of respect and professionalism.

For a school district, it was a matter of control and appearance. It didn’t cost any money. It didn’t matter to the public. It didn’t impact kids. Yet, it held up a deal.

In those deals, the issue was resolved when the rest of the team stepped in and either found a compromise or pressured the holder of the symbol to give it up to fight another day. It’s called a pressure point in bargaining, and when the pressure gets too great, a settlement arrives.

The same thing will happen with the shutdown. This ends when the pain of the public becomes so great the symbol becomes secondary. It doesn’t go away, until Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs firmly kicks in. To simplify, this is the study that shows when a person is worried about basic subsistence, they worry about little else. Unfortunately, so far federal workers are the only ones worried about the basics of life.

For the Trumpsters, federal worker woes have little impact. Many think these people feed at the “government trough.” Those 800,000 people are faceless, nameless, bureaucrats who many right-wing politicians have spent decades disparaging.

What will begin to change the dynamic quickly is when tax refunds are not completed, and even red America begins to realize government does play a pretty important role in their economic lives.

Another pressure point is when main street and landlords begin to feel the bite from workers who can’t pay because of furlough. The final pressure point is when politicians begin to feel their political survival depends on settling the dispute. These pressure points haven’t all been reached yet, but they will.

Yes, symbols matter, but not as much as American wallets. The old James Carville quote, “It’s the economy, stupid,” is still true. Flat wallets will trump symbols almost any day.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for 27 years for the Iowa State Education Association.

Top image: “Border Fence beside a street in downtown Nogales, Arizona separating the United States from Mexico,” photo by Lindasj22.

  • Two thoughts

    I’m old enough to remember when the Iowa DOT commissioned a study that concluded that the costs of building Highway 20 all the way to the Missouri River would be a lot larger than the economic benefits to be gained by doing so. In other words, IDOT concluded that the cost of building the Western Iowa section of Highway 20 would not be justified.

    I also remember the loud roars of outrage from the Northwest Iowa members of the Legislature when that study was released, and of course Highway 20 was built anyway. I happened to meet someone later who helped to write the study, using the best facts and data available at the time, and she wondered aloud why the study was ever commissioned in the first place, since it made no difference.

    As for Trump’s wall, one issue that rarely gets mentioned in mainstream media is that building it would be an environmental disaster for water quality, biodiversity, endangered species, flooding, air quality, wildlife migration, water supplies, erosion, and more. But of course if Trump cared about any of the above, he wouldn’t be Trump. Congress should care, though.

    • Just to clarify...

      …the cost/benefit ratio for Highway 20 may have changed a lot in the decades after that IDOT study was done. I don’t know. I do know that the cost/benefit ratio for Trump’s wall doesn’t look good unless massive lying is part of the calculation.

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