Congressmen Ami Bera, David Cicilline, Rodney Davis and Adam Kinzinger talk problem solving.
As the election year grinds on and the percentage of the public that approves of Congress’ performance sinks to unprecedented lows (around 10%), our political leaders stick to their tired script.
It is all so predictable. Do we learn anything new from elected officials interviewed on Sunday morning and other news programs? “Job killing tax hikes” goes up against “asking millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share.” “We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem,” goes up against “Republicans want to end Medicare and Social Security to protect the rich.”
The messages delivered by party leaders have little to do with making policy and everything to do with inspiring the partisans to battle. Like a body that resists alien organisms, Congressional leaders reject creative combinations of ideas drawn from the insights of varied viewpoints. Witness the fate of Simpson-Bowles, Domenici-Rivlin, and ”the Gang of Six.”
Maybe the problem is our leaders read the dictionary too much. A political party, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a group of people on one side in a contest, battle, etc.” A party is “a formally constituted political group organized to contest elections," and “united in maintaining a cause, policy, or opinion in opposition to others.”
Yes, parties are all about opposition, contests, battles and taking sides. But missing from these definitions is any sense of the purpose of such contests, which—presumably--is to construct effective public policy. Also absent is the notion of parties serving the nation’s best interest rather than simply their own.
But the definitions go downhill from here. “Prejudiced in favor of a particular cause,” is how the OED describes a partisan. According to Merriam Webster, a partisan “is a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause or person; especially one exhibiting blind, prejudiced and unreasoning allegiance.”
No wonder we’re in trouble. These definitions remind us again that missing from the partisan’s tool kit are the critical ingredients for effective policy-making, namely reason and honest deliberation.
How can we break the partisan habit? It is not enough just to replace the current cast of characters. The voters did that in 2006 (throw the Republican bums out), 2008 (throw more of the GOP bums out) and 2010 (throw the Democratic bums out). We have less a personnel problem and more a system problem. The system of partisan competition obstructs functional governance. Its goal is to crush the opposition, not develop effective policy. And by its very nature it introduces error into every policy position by disregarding the strengths of rivals’ positions and ignoring the weaknesses of one’s own.
We need structural reform of our political system based on recognition that independent and moderate voters make up the largest portion of the electorate. According to the American National Election Studies, people who identify themselves as “independent” or “not very strong” partisans outnumber “strong” partisans two to one (68% vs 32%). Yet partisan control of our electoral machinery (primaries, redistricting, election commissions) combined with restrictive Congressional rules ensures domination of Congress (and state legislatures) by the two parties’ most committed loyalists.
As long as this situation persists, we can expect one of two outcomes, neither of them adequate to the nation’s challenges. When one party controls the executive and the legislature, it will overreach, impose a one-sided agenda, and see its results continually revisited (for example, health care reform at the federal level and collective bargaining limits at the state level). But when control of government is divided, the parties will deliver gridlock.
Who can doubt that we must do better? When only 35% of Americans believe the two parties are doing an adequate job, now is the time to pursue a reform agenda. Reform-minded Americans can magnify their impact through organizations like No Labels and Independentvoting.org. The more citizens mobilize to open up the electoral system (open primaries, non-partisan redistricting, inclusive federal and state electoral commissions) and pressure Congress to ease the restrictive practices that fuel polarization, the sooner the dictionary definitions of parties and partisanship will be only of historical interest rather than a predictor of our elected officials’ behavior.
Jonathan Lippincott and his wife, Nancy Lippincott, teach a course called "The High Cost of Bipartisanship" at the University of Cincinnati's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which led to his drafting this piece.