When I step back and try to figure out why things in general seem so dysfunctional, here are some of what I think is happening:
Politics has become about power and survival instead of service. This is the one-sentence summary. When you spend the bulk of your efforts on keeping yourself alive through the accumulation of power (i.e., getting a seat on a committee, marginalizing your competition, etc.), and starting the campaign for the next election as soon as you win the previous one (time away, fundraising, etc.), what time is left to serve the constituency and build consensus and would doing so jeopardize your survival? And that is the root of dividing instead of improving. It has become about fighting instead of working. Listen to the language of the current candidates: “fight” is the prominent word. Not “represent”, and not “work”.
America is not homogeneous. There are broad regional differences in viewpoints and values. Not all of us are alike, and not all of us can be put in a blue or red bucket, though all of us are Americans. And that is what makes this place so awesome. Therefore, there is no single right answer for the country across so many topics. And this is why compromise is so absolutely necessary. We need to work together to figure out what works best for the country as a whole, instead of just one group at the expense of another.
At a high level, goals across party lines have a lot in common. Where we differ is on how to achieve them. There are many ways to achieve a goal, not just one. Not just two.
Compromise has become a lost art. It is replaced with slash and burn. Tearing down instead of building. It should be solutions vs problems, instead of neighbor vs neighbor. Fighting is easy, but collaboration across lines is hard.
Take a look at this social experiment by JetBlue. It is not just a metaphor for politics, and it is not a coincidence that they have red and blue hand signs. We all loose opportunities when we succumb to fighting, fail to compromise and fail to work together.
“News organizations” are communicating what sells the most, and fueling the fight. They do sound bites instead of stories, only scraping the surface. Unfortunately due to our human nature, it’s what we like to see.
Campaigns and politics are more about style than substance. The content has become superficial.
Running a campaign takes an unreasonable amount of money. In the 2012 presidential campaign, each candidate with party funds and super-PACs spent $1 billion each. Billion. Those without money can’t compete. The candidate becomes indebted to contributors instead of voters.
Debates aren’t about discussing the pros and cons of platforms and plans, but attacks on a person like a celebrity magazine or a middle school argument. Having a challenging conversation is very different than fight or flight.
There is a surprising lack of accountability and misinformation in truth telling: see factcheck.org.
Stories need to move from style (celebrity zingers and sound bites) to substance (long talks on proposed policy and plans). And we need to have the patience to listen and think and ask questions.
We can’t place all the blame for this on the candidates, the system is broken. Both the party system and the campaign process need an overhaul. We need to stop rewarding the wrong behaviors, if we hope for those behaviors to stop.
For each party during the primary process, the question seems to be “is the Republican conservative enough” and “is the Democrat liberal enough”. While that may play well to each party’s base during the infighting of the primary, it creates distance between moderates and the other party in the general election. Instead of finding middle ground that appeals to a majority of citizens across lines, it ends up pitting a small number of right-wing extremists against a small number of left-wing extremists, and leaving the moderates trying to figure out which extremist they dislike the least. This is what makes the party nomination/primary so short-sighted. It fails to think long-term.
A protest vote to throw out a few leaders isn’t going to make a positive effect, because the real issue is the current culture of the institution. It’s way bigger than a few people. Choosing leaders that are less likely to talk across party lines, less likely to find common ground, and more likely to polarize is going to increase the stagnation, not reduce it. A protest is different than getting something working. Like the old saying, “are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” Our lack of governing ability is self-inflicted. When are we going to stop sabotaging ourselves? When we stop polarizing and start compromising.
I’m tremendously happy to be in America and we have it tremendously good here, but at the same time this country faces lots of problems. Many of which are very complex. I believe we are totally capable of solving them. But it’s going to take grown ups to do so. The question is if we can rise to the challenge, or wallow in the state of the natural man.
So what to do? Here are some ideas, for whatever it is worth to you:
Really research. Don’t rely only on news and social media friends. Or other sources that are recognized to be leaning or have an agenda.
Get a deeper understanding of the issues. We all make assumptions that turn out to be false or very incomplete.
Talk. It is the silent moderates that enable the noisy extremists.
Listen to others that are different than yourself and understand their perspective. Have civil conversations, it’s OK to not agree, really! Don’t be silent. Always be civil, even when others are not. Be slow to take offense. One party does not have a monopoly on all the good ideas.
Vote. Every vote matters. Be informed when you vote, really informed. Sound like work? It is! When you default your vote to party membership instead of the fit of each individual candidate, then you are letting the party vote for you.
Continue to engage with the officials after the election, whoever gets elected.
Realize that those elected officials likely have less impact than they claim, either for benefit or detriment. I doubt they are either a savior or a devil. Treat elected officials with moderation.
Remember that they are here for us, we are their customer, not the other way around. That’s why they used to be called a “public servant”.
[Update]: The other thing I see going on is the candidates (especially one presidential candidate in particular) promoting fear. Fear is a strong motivator, but for all the wrong reasons. It creates an emotional response instead of a thoughtful response. Be aware of when people try to manipulate you using fear, for they are doing so with the goal of benefiting themselves. Instead of reacting to the fear, stop and calm down, dig through the facts, and figure out a productive solution to the problem being faced. It’s likely to be more complex and in a different direction than the manipulators prefer.