Recapturing the center in American politics

Recapturing the center in American politics
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Last Tuesday at the National Constitution Center, two dozen of Philadelphia’s business leaders from across the political spectrum met with former elected officials, both Democrat and Republican. This was no smoke-filled room, however. The reason for the meeting, convened by the Commission on Civility and Effective Governance, was not to further some special interest or to seek tax breaks or regulatory relief. Rather, this group came together in an effort to improve our nation’s civic dialogue, reduce partisan gridlock, and begin to rebuild the great, moderate center of American politics that has guided our nation for over 200 years.

The problem was relatively easy to identify. Candidates from both parties spend most of their time vilifying the other side, in order to raise the obscene amounts of money needed to wage an effective political campaign in 2018. They then spend that money hurling more invective, to further energize and anger their base even more, thereby driving voter turnout.

Meanwhile, partisan media continues to preach to their faithful, misinforming them with one-sided narratives. Indeed, facts themselves are under continued attack, making it more and more difficult to discern fake news and propaganda from objective reality. The result of this dysfunctional dynamic is that elected officials are in no position to look across the political aisle for the compromises and consensus-building necessary to perform the most basic duties of government. If they do, gerrymandered districts and closed primaries will ensure that the most likely threat they face will come from even more extreme forces in their own party.

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Solutions, admittedly, were more difficult to find. All seemed to agree that we must break the current cycle of hyper-partisanship and dysfunction if we are to restore our democracy, and get the responsive government we need. Beyond that, there was spirited conversation and a healthy range of ideas. I certainly do not speak for the entire group, or any individual member besides myself. What follows are simply some of the ideas we discussed to begin rebuilding the problem-solving center of American politics.

 

First, stop funding its demise.  I am a proud Democrat, but when I get an email telling me that Republicans are trying to steal an election, or that they are all racist, and so I should send in five dollars to help stop them, I close my wallet. If all you offer is vitriol against the other side, if you do not have a positive vision for what you want to achieve, then you do not deserve to be supported as a candidate.  

We all must begin to question the stereotypes on which these pleas for cash rely, and instead ask the candidates who traffic in them how they will actually help lead a country that has a long and proud tradition of compromise for the sake of the common good.  

Second, engage with people and ideas with which you disagree. Turn to a news channel that that really bothers you, and listen carefully to what they are saying. Start to see the world through the eyes of someone on the other side of the political divide, and you may begin to see areas of common ground. You might even modify your view on some issue. Similarly, engage with people with whom you disagree. Trust in their intentions, even if you disagree with their conclusions.

Third, end gerrymandering. Gerrymandering creates safe, one-party districts in which politicians need only play to their hard-right or -left bases in primaries. Leaders elected from these districts then have little incentive to find real, practical solutions to the challenges the nation confronts.  

The recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling striking down the 2010 districts was a good step, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions to send gerrymandering cases back to lower courts in Wisconsin and North Carolina suggests that reform will have to come from the bottom up. Without voter support in favor of abolishing the practice of letting politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around, we will always be subject to at the whim of partisan gerrymandering.

Fourth, open our primary elections. Right now in Pennsylvania, only registered members of a political party may vote in that party’s primary. As a result independents and moderates are often frozen out of the process for selecting candidates, and only get to participate in the general election, when the choice has been reduced to two extremists.

Fifth, explore alternative voting systems like the “top two” system and rank voting. These systems help to ensure that political candidates that appeal to the majority of voters in the middle of the political spectrum have a chance to be elected despite party affiliation.

None of these steps are easy, and none will solve our nation’s political dysfunction overnight. But just like the original “Miracle at Philadelphia,” enough concerted effort by people with the nation’s interest genuinely at heart, can restore our democracy and help to ensure our future.

Richard Phillips, Jr., is a member of the Commission for Civility and Effective Governance, sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC).