What are we fighting for?

“Everything in Hawai‘i is political. Except politics — that’s personal.”

— Lobbyist John Radcliffe

It seems like everyone in Hawai‘i politics is in a fight. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of instances when a good, clean, public disagreement is exactly what we need. After all, we saw what happened when Congress voluntarily rendered itself irrelevant for fear of being labeled “obstructionist.” We could have used more fights during the last five years, especially about Executive Power, the Iraq War, FEMA, and tax policy.

But locally, sometimes I don’t even know what we are fighting about.

We’ve got city councils fighting themselves, the State House Democrats fighting each other, and the governor fighting the Honolulu mayor and the congressional delegation. Yet on the most important issues of the day, we seem to be in sync on substance. Almost everyone is for rail on O‘ahu, everyone’s for the Akaka Bill, most people are pro-renewable energy, and everyone wants to build more affordable housing. So what gives?

I think it’s personal. Our local rivalries have become so overheated that many of us have literally forgotten, or never learned, how to work together.

I’m not suggesting we lay down our swords, hold hands, and never disagree, but too many of our disputes are unproductive. Those politicians in power must remember that no one likes a bully, and those out of power need to remember that no one likes a whiner. And every time we waste human energy and newspaper ink on petty thrusts and parries, it detracts from the value of honest, heated debate over the real issues.

Maybe it’s one too many talk radio shows, or the search for the snappy but vacuous 15-second sound bite. But somewhere along the line, civility has fallen prey to frivolity. Maybe it is slipping away so casually, we barely notice.

It’s time for a change.

By our behavior, let’s affirm our ability to disagree openly and honestly without hard feelings. Let’s remember that making the honest argument and searching for the best compromises are critical in a successful democracy, whereas keeping do-or-die track of which team someone is on is silly. The complicated network of alliances caused by this game-playing can stifle civility.

There are hopeful exceptions to this trend — the governor and the superintendent of schools don’t seem to be holding dueling press conferences anymore, and the factions in the generally balkanized state Senate have achieved a detente under a new president.

But we need more of this kind of leadership. Leaders such as Gov. Ariyoshi, David McClain, and Harry Kim know how to do this, and that’s why the public senses that there is something different about them. People know the difference between fighting for a principal and fighting purely to exercise power.

Those leaders who can keep their eyes on what is really important and figure out how to disagree without being disagreeable will ultimately bring together people and achieve more for our state.

• Brian Schatz was a state representative for eight years and ran for the U.S. House in 2006. He is currently CEO of Helping Hands Hawai’i, one of O’ahu’s largest social service agencies.

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