Chicagoans are undoubtedly sick of Washington's dithering. The cycle of partisan retribution reflected on cable news shows and social media has driven faith in government to depressingly low levels. But in too many cases, rather than adding pressure for Republicans and Democrats to work together for the public interest, frustration turns to partisan rage. The great challenge in America today — the only real hope for our democracy — is to turn that trend around.
It would be one thing if America weren't under threat. But set aside all the problems we have here at home. China's clearly got designs on surpassing the U.S. as the world's preeminent 21st century power — and they've got the means to get there. Not only does their population dwarf ours, they've got a system of government that allows them to build and invest at a rate that puts our dithering to shame.
So how should our leaders in Washington respond? They've got two options. The first is to give in — to try to outpolitic the other party, thereby convincing the other side to give in. Today that's the bulk of what they do, trying to get their bases all worked up. Ripping up a speech. Refusing to shake a hand. Ridiculous behavior — unworthy even of a kindergarten playground.
The second option for leaders is to turn against the tide — to have the courage to reach across the aisle, talk earnestly to people from the other party, and to negotiate in good faith. They can join the Problem Solvers Caucus.
The Problem Solvers Caucus is a group of 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans who meet privately to hash through tough issues. And here's what's remarkable: More often than not, they come to a bipartisan agreement. They proposed the only bipartisan way forward on health care reform in the last Congress. They crafted a bipartisan path forward on infrastructure. They even came up with a bipartisan plan for immigration and border security. In other words, on issues where Democrats and Republicans often appear hopelessly divided, the Problem Solvers have proven there is common ground.
But they can't do it alone. To change Washington, those members of Congress willing to work in an earnestly bipartisan way in Washington need support in places like Chicago. So here's what you can do to help.
First, tell your leaders in Congress — or those running to represent you — that you want to see a different kind of leadership in D.C. Members are hearing from activists all the time that they'll be punished at the ballot box for reaching across the aisle — tell them it's a huge mistake not to be bipartisan.
Second, tell your friends and neighbors about the Problem Solvers. Today, the real challenge is that we've “normalized” unending acrimony. Show that you think there's reason to listen and engage the other side.
Third, get involved with No Labels, the nonpartisan organization that inspired the Problem Solvers Caucus and works to support the re-election of its members.
The question today is whether the impulse to bipartisanship will spread — whether it will end the gridlock and the tribalism or whether rank partisanship will precipitate America's decline.
The Problem Solvers have proven they can have an impact. They managed to change the rules last year to make it easier for bipartisan legislation to reach the House floor for debate and a vote. They forced ideological extremists to pass a bill providing humanitarian funding for those suffering at the border. But they won't succeed unless ordinary people reward them for the courage of their leadership.
The nation's citizens support bipartisanship in theory — now it's time to turn that theory into practice. Urge your member of Congress to join the Problem Solvers Caucus.
Marshall Field V, chairman of the Field Corporation, served for years as publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times and Daily News