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The case for pluralism in a tribalistic nation

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On Feb. 8, I was elected to a second term as mayor of Oklahoma City with 60 percent of the vote. At my victory speech, I looked out at an audience almost evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and Independents. My victory was fueled by the highest voter turnout in 60 years and the votes of people who live in “blue,” “red” and “purple” precincts. But the real winner wasn’t me. It was Oklahoma City’s experiment in and commitment to pluralism — one that is well worth replicating locally, statewide, and nationally as an antidote for these divisive times.  

What’s happening in Oklahoma City may seem novel today, but it actually reflects the qualities that made this country great — pluralism, compromise and pragmatism. Our version of the experiment is an innovative attempt to make sure most of our residents get something they want or need from their local government and taxes. It’s an acknowledgement that a wide range of worldviews and priorities matter.  

Pluralism is political science word that’s not used as much as it should be. It describes a system where many perspectives co-exist. They don’t surrender to each other or attempt to eradicate each other. A pluralistic approach arrives at outcomes that represent enough of each worldview to satisfy the greatest number of people. 

Pluralism is, I believe, essential to American democracy’s success. It’s the opposite of political tribalism, the corrosive anti-democratic framework widely practiced at all levels of government today — a zero-sum game in which every special interest group demands 100 percent of what they want, rejecting compromise. 

How our nation reached the point where every issue has become a death struggle between diametrically opposed ideologies is a column for another day. But my diverse electoral coalition is testament to the fact that what is going on in Oklahoma City is anti-ideological and it is working.  

As I said recently during a panel on municipal government hosted by Vanderbilt University’s Project on Unity & American Democracy, “Some of my critics have accused me of just trying to please everyone, and I’ve said, ‘Exactly! That’s what I’m supposed to do!’”    

I’ve taken my cues from a long and successful line of pleasers. Oklahoma City’s experiment began in the early 1990s, when we were a municipality in serious decline. To reverse the tide, then-mayor Ron Norick attempted something new: he bundled nine projects with broad voter appeal and proposed to pay for them with a temporary one-cent sales tax. The $350 million Metropolitan Area Projects initiative (known as MAPS) was put to a vote and passed in 1993. In the ensuing decade, MAPS accomplished what it promised, revitalizing downtown and attracting private development in the process. 

In 2019, I oversaw development and passage of MAPS 4, supported by a record 72 percent of voters. It will raise $978 million over the next eight years to fund 16 projects.  There are some traditional MAPS-style investments in arenas and stadiums, but most of the dollars address priorities like a family justice center for domestic violence victims, mental health crisis centers, and a civil rights museum. This approach satisfied a wide range of perspectives in our politically purple city. Residents embraced the exquisite art of give-and-take that defines the pluralistic society America was meant to be.  

I firmly believe we are a microcosm of this country, not an outlier. Our city’s evenly divided political composition looks a lot like America as a whole. And while I may be a registered Republican, I am a mayor for all residents — a pluralistic mayor. This has served me and my city well, and I urge other elected leaders to see in Oklahoma City’s experiment something to experiment with yourselves.  

Cities and states have recently been given enormous resources through the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill. We should approach disbursement of these funds — and any that come after — in a completely nonpartisan way, making sure everyone we represent gets something they want. Not everything. Just something. 

We may not entirely solve the great ideological schisms of our age in this way, but we will give most people reason to believe that government can address their concerns — no matter who they are, where they live or what they believe. This is how we can begin to end the politics of tribalism, which threatens to destroy us, and restore the politics of pluralism, which made us who we are as Americans in the first place.  

David Holt is the mayor of Oklahoma City. He was first elected in 2018. 

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