Years ago, I was part of the leadership team of an organization in crisis. A strategic decision had to be made. The organization was divided up into essentially three camps:
- The first camp included a small minority of the leadership of the organization but a large number of passive stakeholders. This group generally acknowledged the organizational facts, but did not feel there was a necessity to change strategic direction. They believed that the current situation should continue and would work out for the best.
- The second group, which was a majority of the leadership of the organization, believed that there was a strategic problem, but no fundamental change in strategic direction was needed for the organization to reach its goals. They urged an enhancement of current tactics, but no change of strategic direction.
- The third group, which was made up of a large minority of the leadership group as well as many active stakeholders, believed that a fundamental strategic change needed to be made.
Eventually a crisis was reached, and a decision had to be made. The organization had six-months to decide. From the beginning of the debate, the first group supported the second group, almost certainly guaranteeing the second group would continue to define the strategic direction of the organization. These two groups were not necessary aligned in their interpretation of the situation the organization faced, but they were united in opposing any fundamental change. This placed the third group in an uncomfortable position of needing to persuade a substantial percentage of the first and second group to support their cause, which they almost certainly could not do.
After months of debate, the organization made its decision by a narrow margin. As expected the second group’s vision continued to guide the organization. A large number of people left the organization, including a minority of leaders who desired strategic change. The organization entered into a period of recovery that lasted for some years.
During the entire time that the organization was making its decision, there were a number of debates. There were a great number of flyers, mailings, and other communication efforts to recruit support. The directors debated the issue, sometimes violently, at leadership meetings. There were many acrimonious meetings. Old friendships were ruined. The process was highly dysfunctional.
What was lacking was any serious conversation among the leadership groups concerning the strategic situation, the presuppositions that were driving various groups, their differing interpretations of the facts, the ways in which the various parties might compromise, or other potential alternatives to constant strife and division. There was little openness by any of the leaders of either side to the perspectives of the others. There was no consideration of the needs of those who opposed either position. There was no openness to any mediation.
Many years later, the organization faced exactly the same strategic decision. After another failed attempt to adopt a different strategic direction, a final vote was held, and the organization voted to do what it had not done over many years earlier. I view the entire episode as a failure of strategic decision-making by the leadership teams involved (of which I was a part).
The Consequences of a Failure of Reason
This organization’s failure to find a reasonable and peaceful way of making a difficult decision is identical in its essential characteristics to the situation our political system faces in a number of areas. For example, the United States of America is deeply in debt. No serious analyst believes that the current rate of federal borrowing can continue forever. The debt level is so high that the debt service threatens to undermine the ability of the national government to fund important priorities. The government has a large commitment to domestic social welfare programs, many of which don’t work and are counterproductive. Much of Federal spending is “pork barrel” in nature. Strategically, the United States is overextended militarily and diplomatically. Finally, in recent years there’s been such a decline in confidence in government that the fundamental unity of the nation is sometimes question.
In the face of obvious need for important strategic decisions to be made and change embraced, one party remains captive to a policy of ever-increasing taxes on the rich and the shrinking middle class, while the other party is captive to a philosophy of cutting taxes without commensurate spending cuts. Both parties are incapable of addressing the deficit. There is a great deal of acrimonious debate in Washington, but little attempt to craft solutions. Our democratic system is in a crisis, frozen in a “winner take all” mentality and a vicious kind of electoral politics. How can we get out of the trap? The answer is, “Change the way we relate and govern.”
Signs, Conversation, and Interpretation
For the last several weeks I’ve been involved in a series of blogs reflecting on Josiah Royce’s work. Royce, in turn, was influenced by C. S. Peirce, the father of modern semiotics, or the study of signs. Peirce had the insight that all communication involves a communicator, a sign by which the message is transmitted, and a recipient, who interprets its meaning. Royce adapted Peirce’s insight and developed the notion that all communication involves the person who is communicating, signs by which the communication is made, and an interpreter who interprets the meaning. Since all thinking is done through sigs, there is always a need for an interpreter—someone who interprets the meaning of the communication. This interpreter often is the person who is receiving the communication, but there is a difference between the perception received, the conceptual content of the communication, and the meaning of the communication.
Royce uses a series of examples to show how this process works. For example, suppose I am walking home one night and see something moving in the bushes near my home. I perceive the movement and perhaps a shadow (the communication). Immediately, I suspect it is my neighbor’s dog running through the bushes near our hoses. I think to myself (the interpretation), “I need to talk to him about letting that dog run free.” Then, I think to myself, “There have been some burglaries in our neighborhood recently. I wonder of it is a burglar?” My heart begins to beat quickly. As I grow closer, I see another movement and recognize my neighbor’s children playing in their yard. I breathe a sigh of relief. My internal conversation constitutes my continual interpretation of the perceptions and conceptual results of my walk home.
This process is a universal experience. A communicator and the person to whom the communication is addressed, need the mediating event of external and internal dialogue and reason for important and difficult matters to be interpreted accurately wisely. In larger groups, the process of discernment involves at least one and often many interpreters. Royce puts it this way:
“If, then, I am worthy to be an interpreter at all, we three, —You, my neighbor, whose mind I would fain interpret, —you, my kindly listener, to whom I am to address my interpretation, —we three constitute a Community. Let us give to this sort of community a technical name. Let us call it a Community of Interpretation. (Emphasis added). 
Where larger communities, like the Congress of the United States, are involved, the interpretation of events is an activity of the entire community and all of its members. It is a presupposition of the community that there are enough shared values and loyalty that the community can discuss and interpret important matters through in the context of shared values and goals. For example, in the United States of America historically shared goals included the promotion of individual liberty, protection of rights to private property, defense of religious and personal freedom, and other commonly held values. It was this cultural unity of shared life and values that enabled our political system to work.
When perceptions of the facts and interpretations of them differ, there often must be many interpreters at work, each with their own perceptions and conceptions of what ought to be done in response to a problem.
Once again, a quote from Royce:
I can at present aim to approach that goal through plans, through hypotheses regarding you which can be inductively tested. I can view that goal as a common future event. We can agree upon that goal. And herewith I interpret not only you as the being whom I am to interpret, but also myself as in ideal the interpreter who aims to approach the vision of the unity of precisely this community. And you, and my other neighbor to whom I address my interpretation, can also interpret yourselves accordingly. The conditions of the definition of our community will thus be perfectly satisfied. We shall be many selves with a common ideal future event at which we aim. 
In other words, when faced with difficult decisions, a healthy political community engages in the process of factual analysis, conceptual development, and interpretation while searching for the best possible solution to problems or the best theoretical understanding in order to move forward. It is this process, which Royce calls “Interpretation,” that is seriously lacking in our political discussions and debate. The Republican and Democratic parties, ideologically defined by extremes from within, endlessly continue repeat their arguments in debate after debate without any attempt to understand or compromise with the other side. The debate is both negative and destructive of the national community. Every election, one party defeats the other party, and the dysfunctional process begins again. The result has been a series of policy disasters.
A Failures of Proper Interpretation
In a prior blog, I discuss the way in which the debate over what is now called “Obamacare” was handled. It is a classic case of ideological excess with no real attempt to understand and interpret the facts, sympathetically listen to the other side, understand the important points about the dispute, adjust policy preferences, compromise, and come to a wise solution. The result was that one party pushed its agenda through, despite warnings that it was actuarily and economically unsound. The program failed dramatically and was unpopular. The party with the majority that pushed it through experienced the political consequences of a poor decision, billions of dollars in the taxpayer’s money wasted, and a continuation of the problem the program was designed to address. In the case of certain recent military escapades, the other party has been led into the same kind of failure by an inability to listen, dialogue, discuss, and reach a compromise in then strategic interest of the nation.
Increasingly, in academia and in the political arena certain voices are being silenced. In particular, on college campuses and elsewhere conservative and religious voices are being silenced, often violently. This is a great mistake. It reflects the same inability to listen and interpret information in the public interest.
The Endless Process of Interpretation
Another implication of the work of Peirce and Royce is an understanding that the processing interpretation is endless and requires various perspectives. One important development of postmodern philosophy has been an understanding that no one voice is privileged in the search for truth. There are many levels and kinds of truth, all of which form an inexhaustible web of meaning. Each interpretation brings with it the need for new interpretation and adjustment to the new state of affairs the new interpretation created. Every interpretation creates a new perception, which in turn must be interpreted. Therefore, wisdom is found in the open search for truth involving the voices of many interpreters of the facts and concepts by which we define problems.
An Example of the National Debt.
Let’s take the national debt as an example. Legislators may have no particular expertise in how balanced budget might be arranged, but need to have the capacity to listen, understand, and interpret the facts from a policy perspective. The may listen to economists analyze the problem, and from an economic perspective, project that a certain amount of tax increases or spending cuts that will be necessary to achieve a reasonable balance.
From a religious perspective, religious leaders might issue a warning that the Scriptures teach that borrowing is a dangerous activity and should be held to a minimum. In fact, from a policy perspective, the religious leaders can warn that massive amounts of debt placed United States government in the hands of its lenders, some of them are also enemies of the nation (Proverbs 22:7). At this point, other religious leaders warned that their views are that the poor should not have important services cut in order to balance the budget. They will point out that a nation is judged by how it treats its poorest and least powerful members. Most of the arguments they will bring the beer will be religious or moral in nature.
Political leaders, from their perspective, may warn that it’s going to be difficult to be reelected unless the economy grows in a sufficient manner to overcome the deflationary impact of lowering federal spending. Theirs is pragmatic view about what Congress can actually do under the circumstances. The other hand, if they’re listening to the economist in the religious leader, they understand that they have to do something. Perhaps, the budget might be brought in the balance over a period of years under the pressure of a Constitutional Amendment to balance the budget. Perhaps some mixture of spending cuts and tax increases is the best tactic to solve the problem.
In the end, a multitude of voices should be heard by the decision-makers in Congress. All views should be considered careful, not just by those who agree with those views but also by those who find those views politically or otherwise inconvenient. In the end, Congress will have to decide. This will require debate and compromise because it is likely no firm consensus will be gathered as a result of the conversation itself. In the process of compromise, there will have to be dialogue among the members of Congress and debates in the halls of Congress. However, if the members of Congress see themselves as stewards of a community of law and interpretation, which is trying to solve a serious political problem, there is the hope that they can a wise choice.
The art of statesmanship is the art of compromise. The art of winning election is the art of politics. The statesperson goes beyond the work of a politician. The art of the statesperson is the art of compromise and decision-making in the midst of confusing, contradictory, and sometimes in adequate information. Faced with the political fact that not everyone will be happy with a compromise, the statesperson acts reasonably and rationally to resolve public problems. In so doing, our representatives act as interpreters of the national will and the national best interest. The United States has no shortage of politicians, but a serious shortage of statesmen who can wisely interpret and respond to national problems.
Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
 The basic facts of this example are accurate, I have changed certain facts and given no names so that the organization itself could not be identified.
 Excerpt From: Josiah Royce. The Problem of Christianity, Volume 2 (Barnes & Noble Digital Library).” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/problem-christianity-volume-2-barnes-noble-digital/id1280399789 (downloaded August 24, 2020).
 Excerpt From: Josiah Royce. “The Problem of Christianity, Volume 2 (Barnes & Noble Digital Library).” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/problem-christianity-volume-2-barnes-noble-digital/id1280399789 (downloaded August 24, 2020).