The Missing Option

Years ago, as a magazine editor with a monthly editorial to write, I considered the either-or nature of the political debates of the time and decided to frame my next column around what I called “The Case of the Missing Option”.   In fact, the “missing option” is a pretty good description of the way most of us make decisions about many of the most important issues in our lives, political or personal.

I’ve long advocated an attitude of skepticism (not cynicism, which is a step too far and too damaging), a healthy probing of the incoming information – what’s the source, how credible is it, what other views are out there – and of the potential outgoing responses to that information – what are the likely reactions, unintended consequences, etc.  This is the essence of critical thinking: taking nothing at face value, being open but looking under the hood anyway.  As Ronald Reagan put it in dealing with the Soviet Union, “trust but verify”.

Skepticism, an unwillingness to accept that Option A or Option B are the only avenues open to us, is particularly important now as our two major political parties seem perpetually deadlocked for reasons of ideological purity, a search for partisan advantage, and an unwillingness to engage in a search for common ground.   Common ground does not mean that Democrats and Republicans start from the same place or seek the same final resolution to the issue in question: it only means that somewhere between the poles there may be a place where goals overlap or where one or the other feels less invested in some part of the proposal it has put forward.  The phrase “strange bedfellows” usually only means that the observer doesn’t know enough about the players to know that they may be less far apart than has been assumed.

I direct a bipartisan public leadership program for the Aspen Institute, bringing together young elected officials from all over the country for seminars where we set aside the issues of the day – the framing, the arguments – and focus on the higher values and principles that bring them together.  The conversations facilitate an appetite for finding overlap, commonality, and cooperation – the kind that can lead to the rise of third-way options that had not been sufficiently considered while the players were locked into their partisan identities.

Third options lead often to fourth options, fifth, sixth.  Breaking out of the either/or straitjacket opens up whole new paths to progress.  Whether in deciding who or what to vote for or which car to buy or which school to attend, expanding the list of options, rejecting the idea that you must choose between A and B is a healthy step toward increasing the chances of better outcomes.  Are you skeptical about that advice?  Good: think about it, weigh it, consider what arguments can be made against it.  Does having more options promote better results or does it paralyze (paralysis by analysis).  Is simple decisiveness better?  What would others say?

Get in the habit.  Question your own assumptions.  Question the sources of your information.  Question the advice you’ve been given. You could have just accepted what I’ve said.  You could have just rejected it.  But now you have a third option.