The proliferation of cable news stations and politically fanatical websites has allowed large numbers of Americans to obtain their policy, social information, and sense of self from within increasingly narrow bands of extreme opinion. These bias confirming communities insulate users from more dispassionate and objective sources. Experiencing politically parallel realities, we have come to see those on the “other side” as not just neighbors with different points of view than ours, but as morally bankrupt evildoers.
This tribalism is like that we have seen between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East. With so many gerrymandered safe seats, those who aspire to serve in Congress must defeat incumbents in Primary elections. If small fractions of voters turn out for these contests, those who challenge Democrats must run to their left and those who challenge Republicans must run to their right, exacerbating the polarization.
There are no easy solutions to this dilemma. Reapportionment reform and greater turnout in primaries by moderates can help. A charismatic presidential candidate who can reach out to a greater share of the voting public could do much to pull us back together. I also think that since this is very much a media-driven phenomenon, organizations must be created and funded to create new information sources that can temporize the conversation, debunk propaganda and raise the political sophistication of the public.
These are not easy things to accomplish, but the alternative is a very dark future. As usual we will have to hope that the younger generations will apply their sense of idealism to the task.
I honestly believe today’s government paralysis can be traced back to the emergence of gerrymandering and one-party congressional districts. During my time in Congress, I represented a competitive district. Never once did I have an easy general election. As a result, my focus was always on outcomes and governance. To succeed, I needed to work with members of both parties; and to find compromise that would result in bipartisan enactment of our agreements.
For us, it was all about governing. Today, it is all about power and control. When the goal is so dramatically different, everything changes. We elect a different kind of representative – one driven by partisan power and control. We function in different ways – the party in power imposes its ideology on both the Congress and the nation. And if we have shared governance (split party control), we find nothing but paralysis. The current Congress’ inability to create a new round of COVID assistance is a classic example of such paralysis. Likewise, the decision to select a new judge for the Supreme Court based upon one-party support is further evidence of imposing power rather than seeking bipartisan consensus.
This will not change until the nation demands change. It will require extraordinary national leadership committed to rebuilding the premise of bipartisan governing. It will require change in state and federal elected representatives. And it will require a national movement, including the media and non-government thought leaders.
There was a day, not that long ago, when good policy made for good politics. A majority of Americans dutifully attended PTA meetings. They took their parenting and democratic responsibilities seriously. A youthful President exhorted us to “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
That sense of responsibility has eroded over the years. Too many Americans now expect government to do far too much. From feeding their kids to providing free healthcare. This shift of responsibility has transferred more and more power to the federal government. Concentration of power inevitably has negative consequences. Power corrupts. It is not surprising then that too many in the political class focus almost exclusively on gaining or maintaining power. Every issue today is framed around the political effects rather than the merits of the policy. Honest debate has been stifled. The emergence of social media and advocacy journalism has only made matters worse. The media once served as the guard rails. No more.
Today it’s too easy for Congress to throw money that they don’t have at solutions that cannot work. All to appease one interest group or another. We see government as a cow to be milked rather than a cow to be tended. In a democratic republic we get the government we deserve. Things will only change when We the People dust off the 10th Amendment and begin to take back both the responsibility and the power from Washington.
I was elected to Congress in 2000, and found that the vast majority of my colleagues believed that good governing was good politics. You could get things done if you worked together, crossed the aisle, and compromised. But things changed. Partisan gerrymandering, opinionated cable news, and social media disrupted the dynamic. Many of my colleagues worried more about a primary from within their own party than a challenge in the general election. As partisan intensity increased among voters, bipartisan cooperation became vilified more than valued. Soon, shutting down the government was more important than good government. The extremes are pulling our two party system further apart - and the victim is good government.
I believe good governing leads to good politics. As we see too often today, politics doesn’t lead to good governing. I think of my own experience as a twice-elected governor of a major swing state and as a member of Congress for 18 years. What I've done all my career is to look at the problems that either the country or my state was facing and then try to figure out how to fix them without regard to who's going to scream and yell the loudest, or what special interest would be upset. You simply look at the problems and you come up with solutions that work for people.
I also didn't pay attention to people on the extremes. I worked to solve problems in a fair way without showing favorites on any issue, whether it was the budget or healthcare or whatever it might be. That approach to governing has always worked for me throughout my career and I was always rewarded for it by the voters. And if you do that, strip out the politics and just be fair-minded and don't show favorites, you can have success. I tried to be consistent with that. I didn't want to say, well, this voice is more important than that voice or some other calculation that shows any sort of bias. Just climb up, take the high moral position, seize the high ground and work to solve problems.
I served in both houses of the Oklahoma legislature and as governor for two terms. All that time, the legislature was overwhelmingly Democrat. In the span of eight years as the chief executive, we moved from 45th to 38th in per capital personal income. I vetoed 302 bills, and all were sustained by a small group of Republican legislators. I was at the table. We put Right to Work in the constitution, passed the first charter school and choice legislation, passed tort reform, cut taxes, and completed the state’s turnpike system.
I worked closely with both parties and told my Democrat sometime adversaries that treading water was not a policy and that if the USS Oklahoma went down, we would all go down together. The last people laughing would be the Texans. It worked. The Texans didn’t laugh.
Good governing was, and remains, good politics. It’s a matter of choice. Good politics flow from good relationships, and relationships take work and intentionality — the intention to see people beyond their politics and their party, a willingness to spend time with one another, to break bread with one another, to get to know one another. I entered politics in an era when we were Oregonians first and partisans second, when your handshake was your bond, and you let someone know if you were going to vote against their bill. It was a time when we debated passionately during the day and raised a glass to one another at night.
This began to change with the commercialization of the internet, which at once connected us in ways we could not possibly have imagined and separated us in ways that were both subtle and destructive. A virtual relationship is not the same as an interpersonal one, and the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of anonymous social media, now allow people to attack and demonize one another without directly confronting them, without ever knowing them, without even giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Over the years, we have lost our adhesiveness…our civility and sense of common purpose, we have somehow let them slip through our fingers and we are poorer for the loss. We cannot turn back the clock, but we can make a different set of choices for the future: partisanship is a choice and so is civility.
We need to find a way to return to a common understanding of facts. Through the proliferation of conspiracy theories, outright lies and other distortions of reality, we have lost the common ground of a shared agreement on what is factual. Until common ground is restored regarding an acceptance and consensus of what is and is not factual, we will not achieve consensus on “good governing”. I am not sure how to accomplish this, but until we return to a common agreement of facts, it will be very difficult to achieve the progress we need to return to rewarding good governance.
During my time in Congress, we were very close to what our forefathers had envisioned for their bright new Republic. Some of my best friends were Democrats.
We could forcefully argue and debate our different approaches to a challenge. Most times, in the end, we took the best of each other’s ideas and ended up with a good product for the people and our country. Afterward, we would go out to dinner together. The arguments were never personal, most times focused on the issues.
A little before 1984, hired political strategists figured out they could raise the temperature on personal attacks rather than issues to gain an advantage for their client. In years since, the personal attack has become the modus operandi of political campaigns.
Add to that the huge amounts of money from outside sources, plus the two parties focusing on power, rather than what is best for the country and you have the perfect storm. We are living in that storm today.
How do we change it? It will take new people, who believe strongly in God, country, family and me in that exact order. That is what our forefathers envisioned for their new country on a hill. Not a constant campaign for re-election.
We need our country back from the lifetime, professional politicians who only understand re-election rather than governance. Sure, there are more risks in running for office in that scenario. However, that is the way the voice of the common person is heard, and Congress returns to a governing body.
A natural tendency of legislators is to cover up a legislative problem with a new commission or an extra layer of bureaucracy. The role of Congress is to provide oversight and today, little oversight is had. Congressional schedules should be revised to provide more time for evidential hearings.
Members should be instructed that all fundraising activities must be confined to non-working hours. (IE: after 5 PM on workdays.) At the very least, committee and subcommittee hearings should be scheduled on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday mornings. Members of both the House and Senate should be restricted to serving on no more than five subcommittees or committees and they should be encouraged to participate in hearings to as great a degree as possible.
The United States is a full time nation and it deserves a full time Congress!
My governing attitude was always to examine policy issues from various perspectives, listen to all sides, and support solutions to problems that would work in the real world. If the Republican party had the best solution, I was a loyal soldier. If my party was wrong on a specific issue – most often issues surrounding environmental policies or those impacting working men and women – I was openly critical and actively worked to oppose. To me, compromise was what made governing work and if you got 80 percent of what you wanted in negotiations, that was a win.
Today, the perfect is too often the enemy of the good and gridlock is the status quo. Likewise, because most members are from politically safe districts, both sides play to their active, vocal extremes for fear of being primaried. I was one of a handful of members who represented a district whose political leaning was opposite of my party, which forced me to forge coalitions and cross-party appeal to have electoral success. Furthermore, I stayed laser-focused on the priorities of my district. As 24-hour cable news channels and social media became dominant forces in our society, many of my colleagues have prioritized national attention rather than noble accomplishments.
We need more elected officials who want to be legislative work horses rather than show ponies, who listen more than they speak, and who recognize those from different backgrounds have viewpoints that can be beneficial towards finding compromise and bipartisan solutions to better America.
Once, people doing the work of governing disagreed, sometimes with rancor, and journalists pressed hard, but they had the freedom and sometimes the privacy needed to do their work. Today, media antagonism has encouraged selfishness and undermined the ability to govern, fueled unrest, and harmed the republic. Today, as one U.S. senator once told me, “If one of us is captured on camera talking to someone on the other side, we are labeled not ‘conservative or liberal’ enough and are voted out of office. It’s nearly impossible now to do what we need to do.” We must expect from and provide to those who govern, the ability to communicate, collaborate, negotiate, and compromise, as they seek solutions for us all.
Education has also changed. The simple act of standing together as the flag is raised and the pledge of allegiance is recited teaches children that we are a people united by our nation. Later, U.S. government, civics, and American history teach how we came to be and how we have stumbled through the years, preparing our children for their future while ensuring lessons of history both good and evil, will teach them how to do a better job than we. So much of this has been abandoned across the country. The result is what we now witness daily on television, in social media, and in the streets.
Read, listen & learn. Because citizenship, history, commitment to unselfish service, and the ability to govern, along with a healthy dose of optimism, are the foundation to good governance, and critical to our future.
We have gone through various turbulent periods in our democracy. When there is a government that derives its power from the population there is a great diversity of opinion in response to challenges. This is healthy when we recognize that we can have differences in approach to common problems. It is less healthy when people cannot have a give and take in order to gain a solution for the greater good.
While there has always been selective perception in gathering information and in use of media, social media has driven intensity to a higher degree. We have become two tribes which now have difficulty even agreeing on facts, or in listening to other viewpoints. It has reached the point where some resort to personal attacks rather than discussion of the issue at hand.
Further, there is a deterioration of respect for our institutions. Institutions are built on law, and on tradition. Both are under siege. For example, legislative bodies were designed to create a balance of power. This would lend itself to bipartisan votes to counter growing executive powers. There was an honor among members of legislative bodies to support the institution across party lines. The Judicial system was not designed to support or oppose a political party, but as a separate branch of government to impartially and independently base decisions on precedent. This has changed when the recourse for losing in the political arena now means an appeal to the judicial branch. It appears that partisanship has overcome the sense of institutional respect, and of mutual respect for process. The greatest loss is the sense of service for the public good.
The more difficult question posed is, “What to do about it?" It is possible to reverse the downward trend with strong, empathetic leadership. It must be done with several leaders in unison, beginning with small steps of trust for the greater good. The decline of civility can be abated with leadership mutually finding areas in which they can agree, in respecting each other and the institutions they serve even if each must give a bit in the process to benefit society.
To be elected a representative is one of the highest honors and most awesome responsibilities a person can achieve. To serve is noble, but to successfully represent your constituency requires hard work, the ability to listen, maintain focus, work with others — including many who disagree with you, and more recently to have a thick political skin.
To paraphrase the 19th Century British conservative Edmund Burke, your representative owes you more than hard work, but must use (his/her) judgement and betrays rather than serves you if (he/she) sacrifice it to your opinion. A member of Congress or senator uses judgement to develop and support policy that addresses significant problems facing the nation. The exercise of judgment does not mean turning your voting card over to party leadership, blindly following opinion polls or ideological pundits. Of course, neither Edmund Burke nor I legislated in the age of social media.
Former New York Senator Patrick Moynihan had a great line, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own set of facts.” Enacting important reforms and solving problems means finding common facts, areas of agreement and in many instances compromise on areas of disagreement without abandoning your principles. Problem solving is also good politics. Unfortunately, we are in a period of hyper-partisanship, polarization, political dysfunction, rampant conspiracy theories, extreme distrust of and disrespect for political opponents. I always thought that anyone who survived the cudgel of political campaigns shared something in common and should be treated with respect.
When I came to Congress, the political coin of the realm was not your ideology but your personal character, honesty, and word. I considered myself a ‘work horse’ and focused my efforts on the committees where we debated and then got together to forge solutions on the budgets, taxes and economy, national security, healthcare, civil rights, transportation, energy, and oversight of government agencies. Members of Congress were overwhelmingly rewarded with electoral support for getting things done for the country, our districts, and citizens.
Along the way, however, we saw a trend toward safe and/or gerrymandered political districts and the rise of energized partisans on the far left and right. Today, incumbents are more concerned about their partisan base and “being primaried” than facing a general election where considering the values and concerns of the broader electorate is required. When you throw in the rise and influence of party PAC contributions, the echo chamber of partisan and ideological pundits promoting political blood sport, we end up with a dysfunctional political system.
What can we do? Voters have a civic responsibility to be informed and demand results over rhetoric and vitriol. Politicians must use their independent judgement, put country first, refute “alternative facts” and work to address the incredible challenges and problems we face today. I support non-partisan commissions drawing balanced congressional districts. While, I long opposed term limits, I now believe they should be considered for all leadership positions and Congress as a whole.
Actual governing is good politics and often boring — just ask the most popular governors like Republicans Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan who lead in Democrat majority states. They must be strategic, build consensus and compromise with leaders of the opposite party to get things done on ordinary governance like budgets and extraordinary crisis management such as the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather events.
Congress can regain trust if members of the House and Senate pull together, commit that we are all in this together, buck political extremes, put facts and science above divisive ideology and focus on the plight of Americans in this pandemic who are threatened with severe health risks, losing jobs, businesses, homes, health insurance, and their confidence in the future.
Our Constitution was written with the expectation that the clash of interests and actors would be inevitable. If that’s true, then the question becomes: How do we manage political conflict among members of Congress, so that differences on policy questions are debated with civility - and principled compromise is rewarded at the polls? Human nature is a constant and attack ads work. So appeals to our better nature aren’t likely to produce better outcomes.
The necessary reforms require structural change. The nomination process should be redesigned to reward congressional candidates who have appeal beyond their party base (the California nonpartisan primary model might provide a starting point for this assessment).
Electronic voting procedures on the House floor should be changed, so that Members are required to remain on the floor during debate – allowing them to get to know each other - and to discuss potential compromise across party lines. That was my experience in the Pennsylvania state legislature. Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I need to get to know him better.” Wisdom.
And finally, we need to move away from the politics of personality (so easily exploited by attack ads), with a refocus on policy questions and legislative proposals. To do this, the House leadership should structure and schedule floor debate - and televised votes - in a way that emphasizes the importance bill passage. I can remember when the passage of a major bill (Civil Rights, Medicare, NEPA, OSHA, expanded GI Bill, etc.) was an event of national importance and resulted in major media coverage. In the past 30 years the House floor has become an insiders’ forum, largely detached from the interests and lives of ordinary constituents. Restoring the legitimate drama of politics would be a major step toward citizen engagement – and informed citizens are less likely to be moved by the anger and ignorance of a 30 second attack ad.
In a well-functioning democracy, leaders would strive to build consensus, and consensus would lead to legislation. Good governance – that is, governance that reflects the will of the people – would be good politics.
But over the past few decades, a playbook has emerged for short-circuiting this essential principle by avoiding the need for compromise. It includes such actions as gerrymandering districts, undermining voting rights protections, demonizing the impartial press, encouraging the growth of biased partisan media, and resisting calls for campaign finance reform.
Meanwhile, the polarization between the parties has grown more extreme, making it ever more difficult for politicians to cultivate common ground. Divisions are exacerbated and spread at record speed in our social media age. The effect on our country has been devastating. Trust in the federal government is near an all-time low. For our democracy to be revitalized, it must be reformed, by norm, by law, and by leaders willing to put the common good ahead of partisan gain.
During my political career I served as a proud Republican and in several leadership positions. However, I was also a member of other groups that defined my responsibilities and brought me together with Democrats. For example, I was a member of the New York delegation and we met at least monthly and worked together in our state’s best interests.
I was also a member of the women’s caucus and we would meet on issues like sexual harassment in the military and breast cancer research. Very few things, however, defined our “team” than our committee assignments. Appropriators vs Authorizers. It did not matter if you were in the minority or majority, you were loyal to your chair and ranking member. And they had your back regardless of politics.
We compromised and coordinated and sometimes campaigned against each other. But when we were working towards a goal, that’s just what we did.
I think good governing is a casualty of our current divided nation. It is as or more divided than any time in our history since the questions dividing us in 1860. Good politics or governing cannot exist when there is a deep divide preventing any compromises necessary to govern. Each side of the divide is focused on the defeat or destruction of the other, not solving problems. Each believes that total control of government will produce good government, therefore that is good politics. Compromises are viewed just as that, and not good governing. Politics and governing reflect the people and the people are divided.
We have yielded too much political power in our country to fringes who demand absolute loyalty to ideology over the sensible compromise necessary to actually govern. We have allowed political parties to craft an election system that benefits their own short-term advantage over the health of our democracy, and with their scorched-earth efforts to win majorities at all costs, the costs to our society are high.
Politicians will act like statesmen when that is what voters demand and reward, but with low-turnout, closed primaries often deciding who gets on the ballot, the rally crowds decide who wins elections, and then demand that elected officials govern in their image. Winner-take-all presidential contests and gerrymandered House districts ensure that while we all extol to our citizens the importance of voting, their general election votes often cannot make a difference in who is elected, and we wonder why people think the system is rigged.
We cannot allow partisans to continue fighting over who gets to vote and how. We need a national convention to achieve a bipartisan truce, adopting a simple, efficient set of voting rules that make it easy to participate and secure.
With election reforms that incentivize basic cooperation, like open primaries, instant run-offs, and an end to gerrymandering, we can have a system where good governing results in re-election. That will help break our current doom cycle.