Our system of government is based on the concept of compromise, a process that requires three key elements: open communication, good faith negotiation and each side making concessions to solve problems for the common good. These fundamentals have gradually eroded from national politics, replaced by growing animosity, accusation and obstinacy. As both Democrats and Republicans in Congress can’t even agree to disagree, the level of political discourse across much of America has sunken to new levels of resentment, hostility and even hatred.
I recently read an extremely incisive piece by Katherine Mangu-Ward in the NY Times, When Smug Liberals Met Conservative Trolls, in which the author examines the increasing disconnect between the two parties’ supporters and how the gap between us is often based more on tone than substance. She postulates that when people on the far left talk about people on the far right with barely concealed smugness or contempt, right wingers respond by doubling down on whatever inflammatory sentiment brought on the disdain in the first place.
“These two terrible tendencies now feed off each other, growing stronger every day,” says Mangu-Ward. “The more smugness, the more satisfying it is to poke holes in it; the more toxic the trolling, the greater the sense of moral superiority. The result: an odoriferous stew of political rhetoric that is nearly irresistible to those on the inside and confusingly abhorrent to those on the outside.”
Newt Gingrich crafted the modern art of demonizing one’s opponent in the 90s, but back then, there were many more members of Congress who would work across the aisle and got things done, like passing a budget, simply because they had to. Today, it’s beyond dysfunctional; as Republicans and Democrats can’t even pass a continuing resolution, not mention a budget, without the threat of a government shutdown.
One of the things liberals love to do is lecture working class GOP supporters about how they often vote against their own economic interests. But what they fail to understand is that many of these Republicans are voting more on race, culture and religion. Candidate Trump skillfully manipulated this dynamic in 2016, as he was able to make white people feel like a minority in their own country. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton played right into this with her “identity politics” strategy which left many of her potential voters feeling angry and excluded.
Rather than belabor the alienation among the right and left, let’s talk about possible solutions to this impasse. Being a moderate or a centrist is a very challenging thing in Washington these days; the reality is you’re not going to get appointed to the most desirable committees and the lack of like-minded colleagues makes you a pariah. So, the only chance to get things done is to execute on specific goals and agenda items, rather than partisan ideology.
I believe that most Americans feel that we badly need infrastructure improvements, but in this case, it’s not the usual top-down politics that will get it done, we will need more of a bottom-up approach where local and state governments take the lead. If congressmen from both parties can come back to Washington with a project specific budget, they might get the president to come up with more than the paltry $200 billion, most of which would have be stolen from the highway budget, for his trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal. Then, a bipartisan coalition from each state could identify a vital infrastructure project that needs to be done, as well as the best way to help pay for it, so Congress would have more of an incentive to act. While it may not be a pivotal issue in this year’s midterm elections, an extensive infrastructure program will have a much higher profile leading up to 2020.
Even if they disagree on 95 percent of the issues and despite resistance on the national level by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, another issue state and local politicians on the left and right can come together on is criminal justice reform. If unlikely partners like Charles Koch and President Obama could agree on the need to address this issue, then it’s also likely that Ted Cruz and Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, probably the most conservative and liberal congressional members from Texas, might find some common ground on prison reform. This may sound like a giant leap of faith, but it can be done. If politicians from both parties can work together on just one issue, that would begin a small, yet significant thaw in the current gridlock.
A recent Gallup Poll showed that barely half of Americans could bring themselves to identify with either political party, with just 28 percent as Republicans and 27 percent as Democrats. Perhaps that seemingly bad news is good news because maybe those in the disenfranchised middle are more likely to start voting based on the issues rather than party. The real wild card is a millennial generation that is far more concerned with getting things done than any kind of party affiliation. If they stay focused on pressing the issues, we might actually start creating solutions to our nation’s most urgent problems.
So, even as we are continually reminded of our divisiveness and discord, in the interest of real progress, we may need to bite our tongues before we immediately lash out at opponents at the far end of either spectrum. At the end of her piece, Mangu-Ward advises that as impossible as it may seem, “don’t feed the trolls.” Resisting the temptation for angry rhetoric may be the first step in shifting our stalemated uncivil war.