When the weather gets hot, I sometimes find myself thinking of the company picnics that my Dad’s work used to have.
You may remember something similar. Lots of food, with an emphasis on potato salad. Lots of people, many of whom only saw each other at something like this. And, invariably, the sorts of games that never got played anywhere else, unless your school had a field day and no compunctions about having some kids win or lose.
For example, there was always a tug of war – one rope, with a not-so-small army of kids and adults gathered on each side, each trying to pull like crazy until the middle of the rope passed to their side. The losers got the fun of sprawling in the dirt or grass with rope burns on their hands; the winners got a ribbon or small prize … and, usually, their own collection of rope burns on their hands as a memory. (There may be a reason this doesn’t get done much anymore.)
Or, for the ultimate in ridiculousness, there was always the three-legged race. Take two people, have them each strap one leg together, and then try to have them walk forward. Unless you have a lot of timing and teamwork, the result is a lot like Goofy after the mallet has fallen on his head; lots of staggering and very little progress. The first pair that can stay upright long enough to cross the finish line wins; the last pair gets to find out the best way to remove grass stains.
This sort of thing doesn’t seem to be done much anymore, which may be one reason we’re all living longer lives these days. (Never underestimate the potency of a potato salad that has sat outdoors for three hours.) But as I watch the state of national politics, I can’t help feeling that we’ve lost some valuable training.
Mind you, we’re all still pretty good at the tug of war. We prove that during every primary and general election, when most of us plant our feet in the ground and refuse to be swayed by anything that could sway us from our chosen position. “Never him!” “Anyone but her!” We pull and tug and haul until main strength decides the contest one way or the other. Of course, at a picnic or field day, you never had a team that tried to pull in five different directions at once, with the result that everyone on your side went sprawling, which demonstrates one of the many ways in which sixth-graders are still smarter than many American voters.
But we’ve lost our talent for the three-legged race. And that’s a pity. Because while the tug of war will get you through an election, you need the three-legged race if you really want to govern – different people learning how to walk together in order to reach a common goal.
Of course, most political “fields” don’t have a commonly-agreed-upon finish line. Sometimes it’s not even clear how long the race is. But like it or not, we’re strapped together and have to cooperate to make even a little progress … or else learn to enjoy the taste of Weed & Feed.
“Winning was easy, young man; governing’s harder,” George Washington notes in the recent musical “Hamilton.” (Yes, I’m still on that kick.) In many ways, it’s like the difference between a wedding and a marriage – one requires short-term planning to achieve an easily defined goal, the other requires long-term survival skills and cooperation, however hard the situation may get.
Many local governments haven’t completely forgotten the skill. It makes a difference when you have to live next door to your opponent. But at the national level, maybe it’s time to look for folks who actually know how to cooperate and step forward, instead of trying to break the ankles of everyone who doesn’t share their (sometimes very eccentric and bizarre) path.
It’s not easy. But then, no one ever said this would be a picnic.