Congress Can Become Civil and Productive if Moderate Voters Demand It
I hate to say it, but this crazy Congress is our fault. Me and you.
Yep, that Congress. The 9 percent approval rating Congress. The pointless 2-week shutdown Congress. The “You Lie,” impeachment-seeking, “die-quickly,” Congress. It’s tough to hear, but guys, that’s on us.
The reason that this Congress is our fault is that we haven’t given them incentives to get it together and actually solve our nation’s problems. It’s not that Washington isn’t listening; they’re just listening to the wrong voices. The vast majority of members of Congress hear from individuals and groups at the polar ends of our politics: far-right conservative activists and far-left liberal advocates, both of whom have their place and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. We, the people of the middle, haven’t created a demand for decency, an incentive for compromise.
I spoke a few weeks ago at a Christian conference where the demographics ranged from center-left to center-right. The type of folks who care deeply about the poor, but also about deficits and debt. People who are very uncomfortable with abortion and want to reduce it wherever possible, but are also concerned about what making abortion illegal in all circumstances would do to women. People who want the sick to have access to healthcare, but also want HealthCare.gov to stop sucking so much. You know, the vast majority of us.
In the questions and answers portion of my talk, one man raised his hand and expressed disgust at Republicans in Congress who forced the shutdown and Democrats who would not negotiate. He said that in his life and his business, he had to negotiate all the time, and come to agreements with people whose motivations, values and goals differed from his. Why, he asked me, couldn’t Congress do the same?
I thought for a minute and decided to ask him and the room a question in response. “How many of you guys have ever visited your member of Congress’s district office?” I said. In a gathering of about 350 eminently reasonable, moderate people, maybe 15 raised their hands. Maybe.
And that’s the problem. Listen, RedState.com, Heritage Action, Family Research Council, and other voices and groups on the political right have a job to do, and they do it very, very well. The same for Daily Kos, NARAL, and groups on the left. Their focus is trying to keep their elected representatives as ideologically pure as possible, and protect the issues and interests they hold dear. So they’ll send people to town halls, they’ll organize email campaigns, they’ll tweet and blog and raise money and participate fully in the political process. It’s a #tcot and #p2 world out there.
And our elected representatives will listen to them, because doing otherwise can mean losing their jobs. Why negotiate to end a government shutdown if it’ll get you a primary opponent from your base? Why buck the Democratic establishment if your own party will hang you out to dry?
The only way to change this dynamic is for Congress to hear from folks in the middle, people who actually want to see progress on national challenges instead of stalemates all around. I don’t mean that we need some grand centrist coalition or ambitious third party—those rarely, if ever, work. Instead, we need the massive American middle to take simple steps toward political sanity, every day.
Like being a reasonable voice in a blog’s comment section, maybe even at a blog outside of our party or tribe. Visiting our member of Congress’s district office and letting them know that we’ll support them when they actually find solutions, and we’ll oppose them for being divisive. Replying-all to that email chain of falsehoods and letting folks know that you disagree, and the lies aren't OK. Giving to and raising money for politicians who search for common ground.
Partisans in Washington will smirk that these things are optimistic baloney and keep sending their troops off to battle. But while they’re better-funded and organized than us, we have one thing they don’t: numbers. There are simply more Americans who want compromise and solutions than those who desire ideological purity and partisan war.
So before we complain about this crazy Congress, let’s ask ourselves whether we’ve actually done something to make them better. I sure haven’t done enough—but I plan to start today.