We Never Learn

May 23, 2018

“My goal here is to win elections in November (2018).  My goal is to keep a Senate Majority”

Mitch McConnell, October 2017

Nancy Pelosi identified the same goal after becoming Speaker of the House in 2007. The leadership of both parties today share one key trait in common: they are in office to elect more Democrats and more Republicans. Governing comes a distant second.

We believe we are trusting our leaders with public office to address evolving national security threats, spiraling health care costs, outdated immigration policies, and runaway federal debt.  Maybe even everyday problems like the safety of our drinking water, medicines, highways, and banks – basic issues that need not be decided on party lines. And yet, from one election cycle to the next, we keep sending people to Washington who vote the party line and get nothing done.

In a politically divided nation, neither side will get everything it wants for very long. To make lasting progress on important issues, Democrats and Republicans need to work together to frame new policies, then stand behind them to ensure they work in practice. Instead, more and more of our elected representatives are moving away from the political center toward the fringes.  

Look at health care. On the left, Bernie Sanders touts Medicare for all, and “progressive” Democrats dutifully line up behind him. Never mind the fact that Medicare in its current form is terminally ill, and that proposals to expand it are akin to treating cancer by allowing it to spread. On the right, Tea Party leaders crusaded for years to repeal the Affordable Care Act only to find that many people who voted for them oppose outright repeal. They want to keep some features of the Affordable Care Act, and they want to know, after its repeal, what kinds of health care options will replace it.  

Meanwhile, millions of Americans are being hurt by lack of access to basic health care.Divisions over health care policy hurt our economy too. Spiraling costs are straining the federal budget: in 2015, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security consumed 47 percent of the entire federal budget. Corporations also feel the pain of rising health care costs. As Warren Buffet put it, health care is “the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness.”  

The bottom line: it’s easy to insult players from the sidelines, and much harder to get on the field and play the game. Many successful political actors today, from the Tea Party to the Freedom Caucus to Indivisible, excel at one thing and one thing only: channeling anger and frustration into motivating their followers to say no. Political leaders who try to forge compromise across party lines are branded as traitors and targeted for political extinction.

How did we get to this point? Non-competitive election districts play a part. Of 435 congressional election districts, approximately 380 are no longer competitive. Political parties have drawn district lines to ensure they stay Republican or Democrat. It’s fundamentally unfairfor candidates to choose their voters, of course; we are supposed to be choosing them. But these gerrymandered districts create other problems as well. Turnout declines as voters realize their participation makes little difference. And, in districts that are so tilted to one party or the other that the primary winner is guaranteed victory in the general election, candidates have no incentive to appeal to a broad base of voters. Doing so only makes them vulnerable to primary challenges from other more extreme candidates.  

Political parties also control access to the ballot. By the time most voters go to the polls, they find they have only two serious choices, one from each major party, who have run the gauntlet of primaries in which only registered party members can vote. Participation in these primaries has fallen over time; average turnout in the last four non-presidential primaries has fallen to around 20 percent of registered voters. Primary voters tend to be more polarized than general election voters, and polarized voters choose polarizing candidates.

Political parties control legislative agendas as well. In the House and Senate today, as well as many state legislatures, party leaders assign representatives to committees based more on party loyalty than subject knowledge. The same bias affects the appointment of committee chairs. In the past, committee members earned these positions based on seniority. Today, they are more likely to be assigned based on loyal voting records.

The problem is not the existence of political parties, but the amount of power we allow them to exercise. As self-perpetuating political clubs, they created their own rules to preserve their own power. No law protects these rules. As citizens and voters, we can demand, starting tomorrow, that candidates and elected representatives work to change them.

Demanding real change, however, requires more from us as citizens than we give right now. It requires active participation in the democratic process. That means we too must stop thinking and voting solely along party lines.

It also means more than following the news, especially when the news is fed to us by algorithms programmed to deliver content we already want to believe. It means thinking about the information available to us, checking its accuracy, and forming our own opinions with the same care we devote to other important issues. Most of us would think it negligent to make a majormedical decision based on one bit of advice. The political decisions we make can be just as difficult and deserve just as much thought and care, yet we often make them without any research or deliberation.  

Most importantly, active participation means exercising our right to vote. Remember that only 20 percent of registered voters turn out for the primaries. Changes to the primary system won’t matter at all if eight out of 10 voters still choose to sit them out.

Demanding more of our leaders means demanding more of ourselves. As citizens and voters, we must do what our intelligence and conscience require of us rather than following the lead of self-serving political clubs