Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is famously quoted as having said “all politics is local”, but, since you almost certainly didn’t know the names of your state legislators and given that most people don’t even know the names of their Governor or Senators, even that aphorism is suspect. In fact, as it is becoming increasingly the case in the United States in the 21st century, all politics isn’t local, it’s tribal. Every two years we paint our faces (metaphorically) with our tribal colors (think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart), and elect people based on our tribal affiliation(s) who then proceed to do battle with each other in Washington, D.C. and/or in our state capitals, resulting in what everyone recognizes as gridlocked and dysfunctional governance.
When people think about politics and elections it is most often through the lens of partisan affiliations that are theoretically based on thoughtfully considered self-interests. We are supposed to know what is best for ourselves and our families and then vote for the candidates (regardless of party) that most closely align with our interests. However, it has been repeatedly documented that voting patterns are, in reality, devoid of any correlation between a candidate’s policy positions or voting record and how they relate to what might be best for their partisan (but clueless) supporters and their families. Voters’ political positions have become hard wired and a multitude of mental gymnastics and rationalizations are used to justify the support of individual candidates and their parties when an objective analysis of a citizen’s best interests would dictate otherwise.
Considering a candidate from the opposing party is anathema and even the most dedicated political junkies, who pride themselves on being thoughtful and knowledgeable, aren’t immune from tribalistic voting. In fact, as discussed by Achen and Bartels in their insightful analysis of electoral politics, Democracy for Realists, we are all susceptible to the influence of our self-affiliated groups (a.k.a. tribes).
Furthermore, while approximately 40% of our electorate consider themselves to be independents with political positions somewhere in the middle of the political continuum (between center-left to center-right), our two major parties have moved to polar political extremes with almost no common ground. And, just as the universe is expanding with ever-increasing speed, the “Dark Energy” of our poisoned political culture (talk radio, Breitbart, the Drudge Report, Fox News, MSNBC, MoveOn.Org . . .) is pushing the two parties even further apart, leaving the rest of us with no political home.
The Republican and Democratic parties today have no resemblance to those of just a few decades ago when liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats weren’t oxymorons and provided a counter weight to their more radical colleagues. Ronald Reagan would not recognize Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, nor would JFK recognize Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, as kindred spirits, let alone as being leaders of their respective (former) parties.
It is clear that neither the Republicans, nor the Democrats, nor the special interests that support them have the answers, or even the interest, to make things work for the majority of hard working Americans. All that they want is power. For them, politics is a zero-sum game; “either we win or we lose and, regardless, we will do everything within our power to block the opposition”. Statesmanship and working for the betterment of the whole country, regardless of party or ideology, are anachronisms that are no longer relevant in modern politics.
Does anyone believe that the landmark legislative initiatives passed with true bipartisan participation, such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, Welfare Reform, etc., would have even a scintilla of a chance of passing today? Yet, the need to address long-standing and increasingly difficult problems, such as climate change, our needlessly complicated (and expensive!) health care “system”, the opioid epidemic, the shrinking middle class, widening income disparities, the effects of globalization and automation, the national debt, . . . is increasing exponentially. These difficult problems will require tough political trade-offs and they will need to be addressed with bipartisan creativity, good will, and humility, lest the results play out like what we are seeing in the quixotic effort to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (which was passed without a single Republican vote in either the House or the Senate).
It is time to reject the centrifugal forces pushing us apart and reclaim the middle based on pragmatism, cooperation, and (dare I utter the word?) compromise. But, how?
Unite America may be the answer.
Several other organizations, such as No Labels, the Bipartisan Policy Center, Third Way, Represent Us, the Campaign Legal Center, and FairVote, recognize that the problems facing our political system have also sprung up in response to our toxic political milieu and are working to address the dysfunction in Washington and our state houses in different ways.
No Labels is focused on bringing elected Republicans and Democrats together to try to find bipartisan solutions (and voting blocs) in order to address the vexing problems confronting the federal government by acting as a bipartisan counter weight to groups like the Republican Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives. Similarly, the Bipartisan Policy Center is an effort by former and current Republicans and Democrats to develop policies that can have bipartisan appeal. The Third Way is an independent centrist “think tank” that focuses on the development of solutions to the pressing issues of the day that can appeal to elected officials and politically active individuals and groups who want to support policies that could develop bipartisan support. The Conservative Reform Movement also approaches these issues, but from a conservative, free-market perspective without the hyper-partisan activist focus of the Heritage Foundation. Represent Us, the Campaign Legal Center, and FairVote have more narrow areas of focus, emphasizing campaign finance reform, identifying and removing laws or legislative rules that invite political corruption, and/or insuring voter access and preventing voter suppression.
While all of these groups are well-intentioned and provide substantial intellectual resources for the development of pragmatic centrist policies while ensuring free, fair, and open democratic elections, only Unite America has a realistic, practical, and pragmatic strategy that, if implemented, can work (albeit, over several election cycles) to truly fix the problem of dysfunctional partisan politics by identifying, recruiting, and supporting (both financially and logistically) independent, centrist candidates for both state and federal offices.
Simply stated, rather than to try to encourage or persuade politicians who have already been elected as Republicans or Democrats and, therefore, already have established allegiances and obligations to their parties and their respective party bases to “play nice” with each other, Unite America has chosen to work with individuals in critical states or legislative districts within states who have rejected both parties and who are truly independent centrists (both liberal and conservative in philosophy) to shift the balance of power from the far ends of the political spectrum to the center by denying either party a working majority in their respective legislatures. Unite America recognizes that trying to elect an independent President is currently a “Bridge too Far” and is not worth the time and money to even consider. Pragmatism and humility, not ideology and hubris, are the operative forces underpinning their efforts.
For example, imagine if there were just three or four non-affiliated, independent U.S. Senators similar to Angus King (I, ME) (NOT that other “Independent”, Bernie Sanders!) that could prevent either Mitch McConnell (R, KY) or Chuck Schumer (D, NY) from controlling the agenda. How long would it take for more pragmatic, result-oriented Senators, such as Ben Sasse (R, NE), Susan Collins (R, ME), Michael Bennet (D, CO), and Joe Manchin (D, WV), to recognize the “Power of the Center” and move the debate that is currently driven by ideologues, such as Ted Cruz (R, TX) and Elizabeth Warren (D, MA), to a more pragmatic focus? Similarly, by moving state legislatures that are currently closely divided (the Colorado State Senate has a Republican majority by one vote) to the center by electing centrist candidates that deprive either party of a working majority, state governments would also be made more efficient and responsive to the real needs of their citizens (Does anyone want to experience what Kansas and Illinois are going through because of dysfunctional, ideologically driven state parties and politicians?). Finally, legislative redistricting can be done in a more balanced way, thereby preventing either party from guaranteeing “safe” seats in the U.S. House of Representatives or the state legislatures. How different would our electoral dynamics be within just 3-4 election cycles?
What should you do?
By now, if you are still reading this, you have defined yourself as a “political junkie” who may be motivated to do something more than read my verbiage. Contact Unite America. Help identify individuals who can be supported by them to run for office. Donate time and/or money to their efforts. Talk to your friend and neighbors to see if you can help them break the bonds of partisanship and tribalism.
It won’t take much to make a difference that will benefit the country in ways that partisan politics can no longer promise. Dysfunctional governance can only be sustained for so long before the social fabric of the country is so tattered that it can no longer support the work that needs to be done to provide a better future for our children and grandchildren. We must change the way that things currently work (or don’t), and Unite America is our best chance to realize this goal.
Views and opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect those of Unite America.