After a dark year, it’s beginning to feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The economy is improving and more of us are getting vaccinated against COVID-19. The return of the Iowa State Fair in August is a particularly promising sign that we are returning to some semblance of normal.
However, as some things go back to the way they were, we cannot revert to “business as usual” when it comes to our politics. In order to truly move forward, we must learn from our experience and fix our broken system. Rampant political dysfunction in Washington and the deep partisan divide across the country severely constrained our ability to address the pandemic and associated economic downturn. Although dramatic action was eventually taken to mitigate the spread of the virus and put us on the road to recovery, the response was slow and uneven. Significant suffering and loss could have been prevented if our institutions had been up to the task from the outset.
For the sake of our future, the festering wounds in our body politic can no longer be ignored. How did it get like this, and how can we pull ourselves back to normal? The answer might lie in a recent report from FixUS: “Why is Governing No Longer Good Politics?: Reflections from a Thousand Years of Public Service”.
While the responses in this report touch on a wide range of issues and solutions, a familiar theme runs through all of them: Our leaders must serve their country over their political party, and prioritize effective governing over personal ambition and perpetual re-election campaigns.
When I served in Congress, I could have policy disagreements with colleagues from the opposing party without things getting personal. In the end, we often managed to take the best of each other’s ideas and produce effective legislation.
A presidential election provided us with an example of taking the ideas of both parties and putting them together, unfortunately not through compromise, but by the consequences of an election. President Donald Trump removed the bureaucratic mess that would have held up the development of the vaccine for years. We received it quickly. President Joe Biden put in place a distribution system to get the vaccine to as many people as possible. This would have happened much faster if the two parties joined together when COVID hit our country, rather than wait for an election. Many lives could have been saved.
Camaraderie and compromise are actively discouraged by today’s political parties and leadership. Throw in previously unheard-of sums of money from outside groups, and the level of vitriol has all but poisoned the well of good governance.
Fixes that address the structural flaws in our election system like gerrymandering, closed primaries, and near unfettered amounts of money in politics can go a long way toward solving these problems. However, the problems of division, dysfunction, and distrust have been reinforced for years and can’t be solved with a single piece of legislation. Reform needs to happen at every level within our election system, the media, our public servants, and most importantly, within the American electorate.
This will require an attitude shift among voters. Instead of rewarding candidates who sustain the incessant barrage of personal attack ads and make unrealistic campaign promises, we must support candidates who offer real solutions to our most pressing issues and encourage cooperation and compromise. We need a new generation of leaders who will reject the current status quo. Encouraging collaboration and solving problems instead of seeking fodder for the next campaign must be the priority.
While these problems are challenging, they are not impossible to fix. We’ve been able to successfully govern in the past, and we now must learn how to govern again. We must learn how to work together in the best interest of the nation as a whole, not in the interest of select special interest groups. If we’re to move forward and solve some of the biggest problems facing our country, we must reduce the division, distrust, and dysfunction in our politics. The solutions are out there, we just need the resolve to make them happen.