I've been thinking a lot about something that came up in a conversation I had in Montana with a seasoned, now retired member of congress. The main point he was making is that at some point in the last thirty years or so we crossed over from a public respect for office into a world of disdain and gotcha" politics. There were a few important elements to his argument that I heard, which are:
Changing one's stance on policy is seen as weakness
Negotiation and compromise are dirty words to constituents
Extreme partisanship keeps people apart socially
The 24-hour news cycle is killing deliberation
Within this critique of the "social operating system" within which politicians work, its clear there are challenges to governing that fall on the public's shoulders. While there are numerous prescriptions for curtailing politicians' powers (term limits, public financing of campaigns, redistricting) I think too little analysis is spent on the kinds of issues raised by the former member of Congress from Montana. For example:
In what other line of work is it acceptable to fail to learn, to cease to expand one's point of view and evolve one's positions on an issue? Is there a better way to unpack values and principles that form a personal character from the requirements of law-making within a body as diverse as Congress?
Which brings us to negotiation and compromise. There seems to be a public appetite for "advocacy" politics, which is the idea that the job of an elected official is to fight for pure outcomes that satisfy relatively narrow interests. Politicians who see themselves as moderates willing to take ideas from both sides to craft "winnable" outcomes is too often rejected as ideologically guileless and lacking integrity. I wonder when politics became framed as such a win-lose profession, and perhaps this helps to explain the gridlock and stalemate that has so many of us feeling frustrated and powerless.
Perhaps this ideological litmus test for purity – from tea party conservatives to progressive liberals – keeps an appetite for social interaction among politicians to a low minimum. And in part explains the rise of groups like With Honor, which promises to elect representatives who know how to fight hard, establish pragmatic common ground, and still have a beer at the end of the day.
And finally, to the point of the 24-hour news cycle. There has been a lot written about the instant-response and gotcha quality of social media platforms, and how these have changed, even polarized the newsroom. I'm not sure that I can offer much here other than to say leadership has much less leeway to actually lead than it ever has, and we appear to have cultivated a public hungry to have its say at every turn of events.
Public trust in government remains at near historic lows despite having one of the most stable, least corrupt and most representatives systems in the world. This is not to underplay the corrosive influence of money in electoral and policy processes but to acknowledge that, for all of our cracks and bloated scale, we have remarkable institutions. How, I wonder, do we get people back into them who hold public service (over, say, careerism) in the highest esteem, and who are capable of inserting the principles of compromise and collegiality back into the DNA of our representative system?