In the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to attend talks by many current and former U.S. Congressmen and Senators.
One topic that comes up time and time again is partisanship. Now that congress has apparently devolved into a shouting match, a snowball fight, or straight up yelling “you lie” during a State of the Union – how do we fix that? How do we go back to a better time when congressman disagreed about issues but still treated each other with respect?
Well first, let’s not sugar coat the past and pretend that our country has never seen a duel between a sitting Vice President and a former Secretary of the Treasury.
But, regardless of the past, I think it’s fair to say that we do have a problem in the present. Congress is more dysfunctional than most family gatherings and it certainly gets less done.
So what do we do about it?
Well, that’s where everyone seems to agree. If we could snap our fingers and reset the rules, here’s what congressmen from both parties have offered as keys to bringing civility back to congress: campaign finance reform and independently drawn districts.
Supreme Court decisions, most popularly Citizens United, helped open the flood gates to essentially unlimited, untracked spending in campaigns. There’s a great moment in West Wing when a character describes the effect of the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo Supreme court decision:
You don’t put “vote Bartlet” in the ad, you can pay for it with unmarked bills from a bank
heist if you want to.
So we should probably do something about that.
The second tactic is about ensuring there are competitive districts. As Nate Silver describes, “In 1992, there were 103 members of the House of Representatives elected from what might be called swing districts: those in which the margin in the presidential race was within five percentage points of the national result.”
But in 2012, there were only 35 such districts remaining.
In other words, “Most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party.”
Representatives from these one-party districts then become polarized as they move away from the center to fight off primary challengers.
Especially since the hardliners of given party are more likely to vote during a primary, one-party districts continually elect representatives who appeal to the extreme of the given party.
The solution, I’m told, is to have independently drawn districts. Reducing gerrymandering and increasing the competitiveness of those districts.
This all sounds very good and rational, but as some point while hearing a congressman describe this need it occurred to me –
I am a party hardliner.
Don’t get me wrong, I wish Congress could get more done. I wish there was less bickering and more action. But let’s be honest: I want to win.
I want the other guys to stop being stupid, and I want my guys to win. I like that my representatives are radical. I like when they use fiery rhetoric and put the other guys in their place. That’s what I love about my representatives.
Of course, I’m fortunate enough to be represented by the likes of Mike Capuano and Elizabeth Warren. But clearly, I’m not the only person who feels this way.
A 2013 study found that only 16% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing, but 46% approved of their own congress person.
Perhaps that’s just the 46% of party radicals who vote in the primary, but still I question whether a move towards the middle is really the solution we should all hope for.
After all, even that old lion of the liberals, Edward Kennedy, was known for being to work across the isle.
Perhaps we need more moderates, but I certainly don’t want all moderates. Perhaps not even a majority of moderates.
The problem of partisanship, I think, is deeper than that. We see it play out in congress, but the challenge is really to ourselves –
Can we, as opinionated party faithful work across difference to understand perspectives and have civil conversations? Can we accept rational facts as well as emotional rationalizations?
Can we move past that urge to win and find it within ourselves to accept that we all want to make this country better, we all want to make this world better? Can we recognize that we’re going to have to work together to make that happen? That we’re going to have to work together to get anything done?
I don’t know, I’d like to do that.
But let’s be honest – I still want to win.