American politics always has been a full-contact activity. Even in the nastiest of times, though, important achievements still were possible. Not today. An entire political industry of consultants, funders, interest groups and others has fostered a duopoly — the Democratic and Republican parties — that depresses competition, discourages meaningful policy solutions and deters political reforms in order to protect a turf that is lucrative to a favored few but destructive to the country.
Hyperpartisanship isn’t the result of divided politics. It is a tactic used by the political industry to achieve its goals — securing and retaining power.
In a forum last year, former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Democrat, and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, a Republican, reflected on how Congress and politics in general have come to be so tied in knots. There were contentious events and polarizing presidents when these two statesmen served in Washington. Yet Congress — and in particular the Senate, where both men served — accomplished great things, from arms control to environmental protection to advancing opportunities and rights for the disadvantaged.
Mondale and Durenberger were asked why the current crop of politicians can’t or won’t set aside partisan differences to focus on the broader needs of the country. Both offered a variety of answers. But one stood out: Today’s Democrats and Republicans not only have very different perspectives on just about every issue — they can’t even get together on defining the problems.
Consider the current battle over immigration policy. Republicans tend to define the challenge as border security; Democrats often see it through a lens of social justice.
If we can’t agree on the problem, finding common ground on the details of solutions is next to impossible.
Intransigence serves the political industry better than compromise. It plays to the core voters of each party — the most intense conservatives and liberals. The Republican base rallied to the line in the sand drawn by former Republican House Speaker John Boehner when he promised to stop everything President Barack Obama proposed: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” Eight years later, the election of President Donald Trump has united Democrats under the banner of “resistance.” These are hardly rallying cries for getting things done.
Polarization and petty, self-serving politics have serious consequences. Congressional dysfunction is contributing to a lower sense of well-being among Americans today than during the Great Recession, according to a Gallup survey. And for good reason. The share of the nation’s income going to the middle 60 percent fell to the lowest share since 1967, when the Census Bureau started tracking the data. The angst of those seeing the American dream slip from their grasp is exploited through the politics of racism, misogyny and xenophobia.
Meanwhile, government increasingly acts in secrecy or by default. Major legislation — the recent tax bill and omnibus budget, for example — are passed with almost no one having actually read the bills. A gridlocked Congress seems more than willing to hand power off to the president. Obama routinely bypassed Congress to unilaterally enact far-reaching policies, and Trump seems intent on doing even more with only a pen in hand.
In addition, unelected and unaccountable regulatory agencies every day impose new mandates that affect every aspect of the economy and American life. One example: The Environmental Protection Agency under Obama imposed nearly 4,000 new regulations, most of them having to do with climate change. Today, the EPA is trying to repeal those regulations one by one, a process not likely to stop even after administrator Scott Pruitt’s departure. Government by whiplash is not productive.
Keeping the public misinformed on the scope and impact of this government-under-wraps is important to the political industry. Interest groups working only in their own interest spend many millions to distract the public from the real issues while undermining confidence in the traditional arbiters of what is fact and what is nonsense. And they are effective.
According to Pew Research, fewer than half of U.S. adults trust the news media, business leaders or elected officials. Scientists fare better, although support is “tepid,” as Pew put it. In fact, other research shows that on politically contentious issues, confidence in science is eroding on both the right and the left. The gap between scientific consensus and public opinion — mostly among conservatives — over the impact of human activity on climate change is well-chronicled. Less well-publicized is that a similar gap exists between scientific opinion and public opinion over the safety of genetically modified foods, with many GMO deniers coming from the left.
One would have thought that as more Americans graduate from high school and college, they would be more open to different perspectives and more trusting of the traditional arbiters of truth. It turns out that a better-educated America is a more polarized America. Highly educated liberals become more liberal, while highly educated conservatives grow more conservative.
The result of all this is a political system that is working well — but only for those who are on the inside. For the rest of us, “our political system has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge our nation needs to address.” That’s the conclusion of a study by Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter that was published last fall by the Harvard Business School.
Instead of competing with innovative and effective solutions, said Gehl and Porter, politicians play to their respective bases, appeasing the most conservative and liberal among us. When it comes to the voters who aren’t at the extremes, the goal is only to be a little less disliked than — or slightly preferred to — the other party, said Gehl and Porter. “Parties don’t need to deliver solutions, but only convince average voters to choose them as the ‘lesser of two evils.’ ”
All is not gloom and doom. There is cause for some optimism. Innovative solutions are developing in health care, education, the environment and many other critical arenas. It’s just that the innovation isn’t coming from St. Paul or Washington but from the private and not-for-profit sectors. The Minnesota tradition is to move beyond complaining to volunteering. Get involved with an organization that is making a difference in your community.
Push those who represent us in Congress to give power to those who truly seek consensus and solutions. Urge Minnesota’s congressional delegation — Democrats and Republicans — to coalesce their colleagues in a campaign for new congressional leadership. The party leaders, Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, don’t need to do a “full Ryan” and retire from Congress as House Speaker Paul Ryan is doing. Stepping away from their leadership posts would be service enough.
Their doing so would eliminate the campaign attacks that paint every Republican as a McConnell minion and every Democrat as a Pelosi pawn and steal time and attention from more-substantive policy discussions. Vacancies in these key positions also would create a pathway for new leaders, perhaps even those — with the votes of what likely are to be many new members of Congress in January 2019 — who have shown a willingness to find common ground on issues.
Certainly, working against a powerful leader has risks for rank-and-file members of Congress. But what better use is there of the substantial reservoirs of political capital built by politicians such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota than being catalysts for major, productive political reforms, starting with their own congressional caucuses?
Don’t be deterred by those who argue that money in politics is too powerful and we can never break the influence of interest groups. Three reforms are achievable and, while not perfect, would start to break the political industry’s hold on power:
• Ranked-choice voting, a process that allows voters to register their candidate preferences beyond a single choice, has demonstrated in Minneapolis and St. Paul that it allows new and more diverse candidates to compete and produces more positive, issue-based campaigns than the current system.
• Public financing of candidates who reach a benchmark of political viability opens elections to innovative candidates. Especially valuable are systems like the one in place in Maine that emphasize small contributions from local donors.
• And, perhaps most urgent, redistricting reform. As court cases around the country are demonstrating, both Democrats and Republicans have invested huge amounts of money not to protect fair and competitive elections, but to gain partisan advantage in the way legislative and congressional districts are drawn. Legislators should not be allowed to choose their own voters.
Each of us can contribute to a healthier political environment, starting by becoming better consumers of news and information. If a news story doesn’t have a link to a credible, recognized news source, don’t trust it. If every “breaking news” item that shows up in your social media causes you to exclaim, “I knew it!” you haven’t been paying attention to the lessons of Cambridge Analytica. Social media is self-selecting. If you only see what reinforces your beliefs, you are being targeted based on what advertisers and interest groups have learned about you. Be skeptical. Reach out to different news sources or start conversations with those who have a different perspective.
If you’re angry with the politics of anger, then get involved. Be part of an issue advocacy campaign. Take time this fall to attend a candidate debate. Talk to a legislative candidate when he or she knocks on your door. Or, go one step further, and volunteer for a campaign. Don’t leave politics only to the most partisan.
Don’t limit your choices only to your traditional partisan affiliation. In the 1980s, a quarter of the electorate voted for president of one party and a candidate from another party for the U.S. House or Senate. By 2012, only about 11 percent of voters said they split their tickets. There are good incumbents and candidates among the Democrats, Republicans, independents and third parties. Bold leadership in public office has to start with bold action by voters.
There are other good reforms, and those should be put on the table. First, though, the public needs to reach consensus that the biggest obstacle to a more effective government is a self-serving political system. As Mondale and Durenberger said, if we agree on the problem, we will find the solutions.
Tom Horner is a public-relations consultant and was the Independence Party of Minnesota’s 2010 candidate for governor.