We asked a group of former public servants a simple question: Why is governing no longer good politics, and what can be done to change this dynamic?
Below are their full responses. Click the link below to read our report summarizing the responses.
Politicians behave in ways that appeal to the voters who control their fate at the ballot box. Increasingly more often, those voters represent the fringe of our two parties. Americans on the ideological extremes are twice as likely to work on campaigns, to contribute to candidates, and to vote in primaries. Election results are thus driven by the most ideologically extreme voters our nation has to offer. Compromise has become a dirty word and members of Congress who dare to negotiate bipartisan solutions are punished by party leaders and threatened with a well-funded primary opponent. The number of centrists in Congress will continue to dwindle until we change the way we conduct primary elections by including the moderate and independent voters who are currently locked out of the process. Moving to top-two open primaries or ranked-choice ballots will make a world of difference by giving moderate voters a voice in the process, thereby diluting the influence of the fringe voters who now determine our elected leaders. Only then will candidates be incentivized towards moderation.
How to restore a healthy relationship between politics and governance? That relationship today is toxic, has been in decline for decades, and literally puts America in peril.
But the reversal can be done. The first requirement is for the American people to decide “ENOUGH," and hold candidates accountable to good governance standards. Vote for men and women of good character, and resolutely vote against the demagogues. Character matters in all walks of life: family, business, church, education, and it especially matters in public service.
Job One is a national commitment by the electorate to measure character. Then, the “Congressmen with Character” must re-learn some time-honored skills: listen; seek common ground; learn to disagree agreeably; find compromise that incorporates the best ideas; pass good legislation rather than sound bites; tell your constituents the truth; respect the process, the institutions, the people involved.
Compromise does not mean giving up on principles; it means achieving your principles, and allowing others to achieve the principles you hold in common.
Third: Leadership. The leadership of both parties, House and Senate, have a big role in setting rules that maximize good policy. Set a legislative calendar to stay in session 4 days a week; write all legislation in Committees with open hearings and open to amendments; bring to the Floor allowing amendments, send bills from both Houses to a conference which requires deliberation.
Time for leadership that leads. Congressmen that put policy above party. And voters that vote on character and policy.
We are all familiar with the typical statistical bell curve wherein the vast majority of people land a bit right or left of center and numbers dwindle as the distant edges of the curve are approached. In today’s political environment, however, the bell curve has been inverted now resembling a “U” with few gathered close to the middle and the masses clustered together at the extreme boundaries. This situation is obvious within the elected class as each side hunkers down in their respective bunkers perpetually lobbing verbal mortars at the other side...and accomplishing little.
Most pols’ voting records adhere rigidly to the “R” or “D” party line, and the reason is pretty straight forward — that’s what gets rewarded by both the powerful that control the money needed to secure reelection and by the partisan voting faithful who demand absolute fidelity to a written or perceived agenda. Thus, as easy as it is to point fingers at elected officials as the source of the problem, they are merely the manifestation of a seriously polarized populous.
As the saying goes, “Elections have consequences.” For decades, America has become increasingly polarized. Reelection and maintaining powerful ruling majorities — not “good government” — is the overwhelming priority. The preponderance of “safe districts” accentuates the demand for absolute partisan loyalty. Compromise — aka: seeking solutions to actually govern — are anathema and the quickest way to evaporate financial support and earn a primary challenge. Voters reward fighters. They punish conciliators.
To be fair, the principles and issues that divide the two major parties and society in general are profound and reconciliation is difficult or impossible: the size and scope of government, federal deficits and debt, immigration, military and foreign policy, trade, health care, social issues, etc. While the present state of affairs is surely a conundrum, the bitter entrenched polarization is hardly unique. Hamilton’s Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans threatened to dissolve the infant union during Washington’s time in office. Irreconcilable differences cost 600,000 lives and risked disunion again on Lincoln’s watch. Our forefathers warned of division brought on by political “factions.” Today, we call it “tribalism.”
While partisan political differences have at times gravely strained the fabric of America, there have also been times when the nation came together in patriotic unison, such as following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001. Searching for a return to a more productive, united, civil public discourse again, perhaps we can take some comfort in Winston Churchill’s observation, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” It seems time for us to again do the right thing. Leadership will be important to change course. But, so too will be a change of heart among all Americans for a willingness to build bridges instead of walls, to embrace again E Pluribus Unum, to follow the better Angels of our Nature.
It is all too obvious to the American citizenry that the Congress has become increasingly dysfunctional and unwilling to assert its constitutional responsibilities vis-a-vis the executive branch. There are numerous internal and external reasons for the worsening state of affairs, not the least of which is the increasingly sophisticated political gerrymandering which makes it more likely that a greater number of representatives and senators from the extreme wings of the two political parties are elected. This has gradually emptied out the political center of people in Congress who are more likely to work with colleagues on either side of the aisle for the common good.
Increasingly I have seen a larger number of people elected or re-elected who I think might well be labeled as “partisan warriors.” For them, the predominant motivation and satisfaction seems to be the thrill of prevailing in an election and the partisan combat in the Congress for ideological ends they embrace, rather than being “legislators” working with colleagues to address the nation’s domestic and international problems and build an America with greater opportunities for its citizens.
To move back to the position where good governance also means good politics, being labeled a “partisan warrior” must come to be commonly regarded as having a negative connotation. We need a sustained nationwide effort, citizen-by-citizen, of voters who ask and hold responsible the challengers and incumbents with these two related questions: Are you a “partisan warrior” or will you be a “legislator?” Will you work as a “legislator” with your colleagues for the common good by attempting to advance the interests of everyone in your district or state, not just the citizens of your party?
An argument can be made that good government, when recognized by the voting public, is still good politics. Incumbents with proven track records in areas of governance that resonate with voters still get re-elected. The challenge is that good governance requires making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions.
Effective policy rarely translates into overnight results and it doesn’t always dovetail neatly into party platforms. There are always interested and well-resourced groups ready to ensure that voters get their side of the story, and that is not always a formula for balanced and unbiased information.
Knowing that we get what we incentivize, the electorate should understand that too often, politicians and political campaigns are rewarded for being the most effective at creating division and mistrust. The fact that many voters have become more politically polarized has also led to an intolerance for some requisite ingredients for good governing, including pragmatism, innovation, and collaboration. It’s a fact that you can’t govern if you can’t get elected, so it’s understandable that candidates and their political operatives speak the language and function in ways that voters have rewarded.
We will see those behaviors change if and when voters regularly give elected officials and candidates their vote for earnestly demonstrating the will to make difficult, sometimes non-partisan, and possibly unpopular decisions for the overall benefit of those they serve. That will incentivize good government because it will translate more clearly into good politics.
What is so sad, and frankly so troubling about the current malaise, is that there is an all-consuming hunger for a government that “works,” and yet nothing changes.
Three big factors are making good governance very hard to achieve: partisan gerrymandering, campaign finance laws, and utterly counterproductive congressional rules and procedures.
Some call it ‘gerrymandering,’ but basically it is often simply a rigging of the rules as states carve up districts on a purely partisan basis. Everything is then decided in primaries. If most primary voters are highly partisan, they will nominate equally partisan candidates. Such a “system” is almost designed to increase partisanship. It does just that.
Money has become the ‘opioid’ of politics, corrupting the entire process of governance. Far too many elected officials spend more days fundraising than legislating. It has to change. Limit the amount of money, limit the time it can be given, disclose all contributions, every one, and expose “Dark Money” groups. Reform campaign finance laws. Now.
Congressional rules and procedures: Congressional committees are bloated. Designed to give every legislator some claim to ‘importance,’ they have become two to three times their logical size. 30, 40, 50 members? Baloney! These are photo ops. Little more. Second, historically, Congress has employed what is called the “regular procedure.”
Using this process, proposed legislation would be sent first to a sub-committee for hearings, analysis, and possible amendment before being returned to the respective full committee. There, if supported, it could be voted on, sent to the full House or Senate, there voted on, and then sent to conference with the ‘other’ body to reach an acceptable final version. That system worked, decade after decade. Return to the “regular order” and watch Congress begin to function again.
Do not dare to tell me we cannot have good governance. I know better. There are too many good, honorable, and patriotic Americans in both Parties now serving in the Congress. They can make it happen. They deserve our help and support, regardless of party.
While there are many answers to the questions posed, I want to focus on two things. First, there is a lack of proximity to substance in all parts of the political and governing process. Second, the role of the individual’s interest is out of balance with the community’s interest.
Lack of Proximity to Facts and the Substance
I find that our discourse is governed by a principle of dichotomy where one’s only choices are like a light switch turning off or on. Issues have become simple slogans where you are either for x or against x. Proximity to facts and substance reveal the nuance of issues where questions are much more about decisions of what or how much to do about a specific problem. When conversations get to the details of what we are disagreeing about, we can make progress.
Limited characters on social media and limited attention spans make this problem acute and it extends from citizens to those that govern.
The Rise of the Role of Individual Interest
Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, describes a trend of the decline of things that make us have an appreciation for and sense of community. We no longer bowl in teams is an example that is reflected in the title. We are in our enclaves geographically, economically, socially, and in our Facebook friends. Without an appreciation of what others contribute and what challenges we each face, we look to our individual interests in our political decisions and this impacts the support for good governing that benefits the whole community.
The willingness and ability to compromise are seen as admirable qualities in business and as necessary in our personal lives. In contrast, in today’s political world, those qualities are often seen as contemptable and equated with weakness.
The extreme right turns on Republicans who dare vote for a tax increase and the extreme left turns on Democrats who dare suggest fossil fuel is still necessary no matter the reason for such “disloyalty.” Yet, over the last decade, we have nominated and elected more extremists.
Some people just walk away from voting, especially in primaries. Those who do vote, especially in primaries, keep electing and re-electing candidates with a proven record of opposing compromise, belittling opponents, labeling their potential allies as “RINOs” or “DINOs”, and preferring no action to slow progress, no matter how you define progress.
So ask yourself — if those candidates keep being elected and they do exactly as they have done and promised to do, whose fault is that? I suggest we each look in the mirror for the answer.
Start by voting — in primary and general elections. Stop demanding blind obedience to ideology, accept as fact that good Americans can and do disagree on lots of important issues.
It is up to each one of us to embrace a more mature and realistic view of humanity and start supporting candidates who embrace compromise as a necessary and admirable virtue in all aspects of real life.
There is no doubt that Congress must share the blame for why good government is no longer good politics. Today not one of our three prongs of government — the executive, the Congress and now even the Supreme Court — is trusted or even respected by a majority of the American people.
I was in at the beginning of this change in public approval as a member of the House of Representatives and Chairman of its Oversight and Reform Committee when the Republicans won control of it in 1994. Five newly elected members who came from states where reapportionment of congressional districts is in the hands of the state legislature which draws districts maps favoring the majority party whether Republican or Democratic — called gerrymandering. They were assigned to my committee and I met with each one to ask for their support and to tell them that we might have to make compromises to pass the legislation. To a man each of them said in effect, I did not come to Washington to compromise. I came to effect change to our government to one more to my liking.
Six states have assigned reapportionment to independent, nonpartisan commissions. But 36 states still use gerrymandering to reapportion congressional districts. This has created a politically rigged incumbent protection Congress.
There are 435 congressional districts in America. Only 33 of them are considered competitive and the majority party in each state stacks the deck in favor of its party. Many voters in the minority party don’t bother to vote at all. This makes the two party general election irrelevant and the primary election much more meaningful. Mainstream Republicans or Democrats are less likely to vote in primaries but zealous ones on both sides always vote, which often results in the election of a candidate more to the right or to the left of their party and less willing to compromise. Result: gridlock and an unproductive Congress.
To restore Congress as a separate branch of government can only occur when congressional elections are fair fights and not rigged blowouts. And that can only happen by getting rid of gerrymandering.
There has been a long battle that the wealthy and big corporations have been waging against the federal government. I mark the beginning of their widespread use of mainstream media to indoctrinate the American public with this statement by Pres. Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are I’m from the Government and I’m here to help.”
Twenty-five years of "government is bad and can’t be trusted" programming from Fox has refined itself to mostly blame the Democratic party and RINO’s [Republicans in Name Only] for all that is bad and to promote that ONLY the far right wing of the Republican party can solve these pressing issues.
At some point, ratings took over as the driver for all “news” organizations to become more agenda driven over news driven, causing the different belief groups to separate even further. Social media has amplified the separation of the American public into our separate groups. Now we only receive “news” that fits our profile and ideology. All others are fake!
Now gerrymander CD’s, and Congress is essentially trapped in the ideology of the district! House campaigns are won/lost in the primary. The Senate, I believe, became far more partisan during Obama’s presidency, and it does not look to change anytime soon.
With all this said, I have faith that a governing middle is possible, but all these years of separation are not easily undone. We have some looming crises and governing will be needed. I am hopeful the middle will have its day.
Politics and governing weren't always at odds with each other. In fact, in many ways, they worked hand-in-hand. And the shifting of power in Washington often meant that you had to be good at both in order to successfully deliver for the American people.
I learned early on that forging relationships with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle simply meant I could do my job better. Finessing a key change through a committee mark-up or drafting a bipartisan bill that could actually see the light of day were once seen as positives and not negatives. That’s not to say that bipartisanship doesn’t exist anymore. It does. But in today’s hyper-partisan world, it is no longer embraced in the way it once was.
Similarly, putting your head down to do the hard work may be labeled as out of touch or even boring, rather than what is necessary to achieve real results. Our discourse is now measured by one’s attention span while scrolling, pithy sound bites, and ideological hashing on social media. As a result, committee hearings are looked to for sparring rather than finding common ground, policy decisions are made based on the loudest voices on social media rather than hearing from a broad constituency, and compromise, a word once lauded by both parties, has become maligned and even shunned.
As citizens, it is in our collective interests to demand more from our leaders and our government. But change can only happen if the people and elected leaders alike place a higher value on governing, solutions, and progress than on tweets, clicks, and likes.
One of the principal drivers of political and government dysfunction in our country today is the impotence of the people’s representatives. Good women and men get elected every two years to represent their communities in Congress and quickly find out that they are inhibited by unfair rules, fundraising pressures, and oppressive leadership.
All of the odds are stacked against legislators who are seeking to build coalitions and work with colleagues to forge compromises. The rules, especially in the House, concentrate too much power at the leadership level, chamber leaders consistently exploit the rules to block member initiatives. Using the Rules Committee, the speaker is effectively a dictator requiring members to beg for an opportunity to advance initiatives or resort to sharp legislative instruments like the discharge petition.
The earmark ban also weakens individual legislators. It is no coincidence that many legislative questions today are resolved by the executive and judicial branches. This is because legislators are not empowered to make laws.
The present political situation, which has been there even before President Trump was elected, is very toxic. Maybe the most decisive perhaps in our history. Certainly prior, during and after for some years the Civil War was very difficult. Today certainly, been enhanced immensely with this president.
Unfortunately, members of Congress in both bodies are so caught up by being for their survival politically that very few are willing to put the country first. Not that way when I served. We disagreed but worked together. Part of the problem is there is no reward in working together. Reaching across the aisle. Finding solutions instead of forcing the majority over any cooperation from the other side. This needs to change.
One way that it has worked in the past is when members would work together to pass legislation with special direction for the government to do certain things in a member's district or state. Yes, earmarks.
When they were still in use, they helped members to work together. Very untrue that they added to the deficit. This was usually an Appropriations Committee bill that directed the agency to spend certain funds for a particular purpose. These funds had been allocated to the committees. When it was abused, such as the bridge to nowhere, and not transparent it became a big political issue. Which can be corrected by making all such directive publicly available prior to any vote.
Transparency, putting some restrictions on amounts and what kind of non-government programs can be funded with such directed funds. Example, funds directed in an appropriation bill for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or the Boys and Girls Clubs for specific programs. i.e. Amber Alert, or clubs on Native American reservations. These were programs that members felt deserve funds that the budget request might not have included. It certainly is the right and obligation for Congress to be involved as to where funds are spent. There are numerous other things could be done to turn things around.
I suggest that our polarization can be summed up in three “M”s: media, migration and monomania. There’s little doubt that both social and traditional outlets are contributing to the factionalism of our country.
We’re each in our own echo chamber, reading and listening to sentiments that reinforce those we already hold. If we limit our exposure to different ideas and opinions, we’ll have fewer of both. We’ll become more rigid in our views and less willing to listen to those of others.
Increasingly, Americans are choosing to live near others who think as they do; red states are becoming redder and blue states bluer. We can’t expect our elected officials to seek moderation if we segregate ourselves ideologically. We can’t tell people where to reside, but our communities would be stronger if they were more diverse; we would be more likely to elect officials willing to work across the aisle.
Finally, remaining in Congress has become an end in itself and the paramount objective of most who serve there. As the electorate becomes more polarized, candidates face greater challenges in their party primaries than in the general election, so the Congress is populated by fewer centrists. It’s therefore harder to find middle ground, as they seek to satisfy the demands of their respective bases.
The public needs to push the ‘Refresh’ button more frequently, giving others the opportunity to serve. It’s folly to assume that the political establishment will reform itself.
It's hard to pin down any one or two causes of the disturbing changes in governance. But the hardening of partisan identities has been one major factor: disagreement, and on some issues, polarization, are inevitable in a democracy, but partisanship is not. Yet that's the path we've taken even against the wishes and warnings of the founders.
Instead of a Congress in which legislation moves upward — introduction, subcommittee, committee, floor — today in both Houses control is exercised from the top down. Conformity, not judgement, is the operating principle.
Outside the Congress, hardliners learned to focus on party primaries to elect candidates who would enter their legislative careers seeing themselves not as members of a deliberative body, but as warriors for a cause. In a Congress in which the majority party exercises all power and the minority none, every issue becomes a battle for control.
Finally, America has changed as the people have sorted themselves into enclaves of commonality within gerrymandered districts in which retaining one's seat requires fealty to the acceptable club. Not an easy knot to untie or cut through.
The bitter and acrimonious presidential election of 2020 is the latest chapter in the continuing polarization of American politics that began in earnest in the 1980s. It emerged most prominently in the 1994 House election that ended governing from the center. It also greatly strengthened leadership and weakened the committee system to the detriment of internal comity.
In the House, a pattern of extreme partisan redistricting made roughly 75 percent of the members safe in the general election but vulnerable to primary challenges from the right or the left if they strayed from the party line. In the Senate, fewer purple states and more bright blue or red states made most delegations of one party only.
In an era where civic literacy has greatly declined and party affiliation is no longer inherited from family ties, voters seek simple ways of determining how to vote, if indeed they bother at all. The rubbing raw of issues that had been less visible in the past — race, religion and culture — was made to order for single issue voting. This put new pressure on members to take a stand on such matters as abortion, gun rights, sexual identity issues, and separation of church and state.
A new media focused on controversy, pioneered by Roger Ailes on network TV and the Rush Limbaughs of radio on the Right, and the rise of social media as a news source that profits from playing to existing bias, can move blocks of Republican votes on the House floor. On the Left, MoveOn and other progressive groups have had a similar impact on the Democratic side.
In addition, modern travel and technology have made service on the Hill far more impersonal. Families move to Washington at the members’ peril. Members’ jetting in and out for two or three days, while communicating electronically on many occasions, has reduced human interaction and limited friendships, particularly across the aisle.
All of these factors and more have made finding common ground on major issues almost impossible.
As an election is upon us, change is in the air — probably to the detriment of President Trump. Anticipated large turnouts usually indicate dissatisfaction with the existing order. Voters want change to keep up with and respond to the disconcerting changes in our lives.
Why is it, in this time of dramatic change, that our governmental institutions do not appear to be working very well? It is a question that many are asking.
It may be that such change is outpacing our ability to formulate policies necessary to cope with the consequences of those changes appropriately. We are applying old policies to new problems and they are not working. For example, a growing awareness of the problem of climate change is resulting in a commitment to clean renewable energy; i.e., wind, solar, moving away from fossil fuels.
Notwithstanding that fact, we continue to build oil and gas pipelines that will have to be paid for by a diminished revenue base; i.e., stranded costs for consumers.
To cope with this type of problem, we need leadership that is willing to get the general public — real average people and not just special interest groups — engaged in, and informed about, making public policies, because that’s how our system works — Participatory Democracy. The system doesn’t work unless we all work at making it work. Informed about, because the problems, e.g. climate change, are becoming more complex. There are more options and alternatives to consider.
You can’t fix the problem if you don’t understand the problem. Democracy is about making decisions about choices. Gun violence is an example of an issue ready to be dealt with. Citizens are becoming tragically engaged due to their children being shot, in classrooms or on the streets. They are becoming informed by reading about the lethal firepower of available military assault weapons. This awareness hopefully yields policy progress…
Taking on this admirable approach to policymaking is not for the faint-hearted. Defenders of the status quo, no matter how bad the policy is, will defend it to the death. That is usually because they are making money from such policies (think tobacco, coal, assault weapons).
Getting our citizens engaged and informed, however, is the only way to meet the challenges of the future. We have no choice.
I’m asked to answer the question: “Why does it seem that good governing is no longer good politics?” At one level my response would be: “was it ever?” But I know from personal experience of over 30 years in elective office that there has been a change. During my more than a dozen years in municipal office (mostly in the majority) including a brief stint as mayor there was broad agreement on what the issues were, a willingness to work together, and consensus if not unanimity on most matters.
During 18 years in the House (always in the minority), I found ways to achieve important legislative changes working across the aisle (in this case with the majority) and although I usually supported my party’s position there were important issues on which I did not follow my leadership or the president of my party. In those instances I didn’t consider myself a moderate or a maverick, just a member looking to support positions which made the most sense to me (and, hopefully, my constituents) whether the sponsors were Rs or Ds.
Of course approaching politics that way these days is a one-way ticket to retirement (ask former Senators Sessions and Flake). I’d like to see a world in which members of the other party were considered “the opposition” not “the enemy,” where “compromise” and “bipartisanship” were not dirty words, and legislators were not under pressure always to support “their” president or “their” speaker.
I seriously doubt that I could survive in today's no-man’s land of party primaries since I would not, could not take the pledge always to support MY leader (the president, the speaker, or the minority leader). No single event or person has brought us to this pass. The treatment of the Bork nomination (by one party) and the Contract with America (by the other) happened more than a generation ago.
While I’d like to see positive change bubble up from the grass roots I think that’s unlikely. What we are seeing today may appear to be a battle between Rs and Ds but I think it’s much more a contest between those supporting a parliamentary system in which one person controls both the executive and legislative branches and one in which those branches contest with each other issue by issue which, judging by the Federalist, is what the founders had in mind.
We will know that change has occurred when the legislative branch demonstrates by its actions that it intends to be independent of the executive. That to me would be good governing and good politics.