American politics is strikingly bi-polar. We are firmly divided. We are firmly united. Yet the dynamic of the divided part makes the union part almost irrelevant.
We are divided by party. Democrats are as far from Republicans as they have ever been in modern American history. We are loyal to our tribe; we punish the disloyal. The machines of our social life — Facebook and Twitter — feed us ideas we like, and discipline us for deviance from those ideas. If we signal improperly, “friends” may “unfriend” us. So we speak as we should. “Hey, like me! Because, like you, I hate them.” Thus the politics of hate wired to our emotions.
Yet at the same time, we are as united as we have ever been. Overwhelmingly, whether Democrat or Republican, we are angry with our government. Overwhelmingly, we see our “representatives” as not representing us.
As the University of Maryland found in a survey at the height of the 2016 campaign, dissatisfaction with government has literally never been as great or as passionately felt. Eighty-three percent were “dissatisfied,” with 32 percent described as “angry.” Ninety-two percent of Americans (95 percent of Republicans/89 percent of Democrats) believe “the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.”
Further, 85 percent (87 percent-R/84 percent-D) believe Congress “does not serve the common good” and 89 percent (89 percent-R/90 percent-D) believe “corporations and their lobbyists have too much influence.” Finally, 91 percent believe “big campaign donors have too much influence.” (90 percent-R/91 percent-D). No statistician could look at those numbers and see any difference between Republicans and Democrats here. We do not have a government that represents us. On this, we are all essentially agreed.
This unity might suggest hope. There is common ground to build upon. But the dynamics of American politics makes that building incredibly difficult. The primaries force candidates of both parties to play to the politics of hate. The successful Democrat or successful Republican is the candidate who can fire up the base most effectively, by rallying us against them. The focus is on division, because the activists within a primary — a tiny but critical slice of America’s democracy — demand a candidate be firmly focused on what makes us right, and what marks them evil.
For a long time, this race to the extremes didn’t really matter very much. Candidates would win the approval of the most committed in their party, but then quickly race back to the middle to woo swing voters. But there is increasingly strong evidence that this normalizing strategy may just be bad politics: The candidate who shifts signals shiftiness. And many voters punish the posturing politician, even if they like his modified views better.
The result is a system that yields candidates on each side who simply alienate the other side. And that makes leveraging the common ground that unites us practically impossible. As we look to the field of extremists, we see our tribes first, and truth a distant second.
We have to find a way out of this rut. We have to build a politics that can build upon common ground. We need a way to say, “yes, we disagree about a million critical issues, but we must first agree to fix the democracy that must unite us. The machine of government does not represent us — this we all believe. And regardless of what we want government to do or not to do, we must find a way to repair that machine, first.” We need candidates who are able to say to their base, “I’m with you, but our first fight is not against them; our first fight is against a system that represents neither us nor them.”
The campaign consultants’ view is that such a politics is not possible. There is a way to win campaigns, given who we are. That strategy has little to do with common ground.
But there’s a growing number of candidates who are trying something different. These are not politicians who pretend to stand in the middle and then from the middle, embrace the common ground of reform. These are candidates who are not shy to declare their strong progressive values, but who make the need for reform clear and central to their campaign.
Beto O’Rourke, in Texas, for example, is challenging Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMcConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal Democrats seek to avoid internal disputes over Russia and China GOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' MORE. O’Rourke does not hide that he is a progressive. But when he attacks the power of money in politics, and refuses to accept any contribution from any PAC, he is appealing to something that every Texan knows is true. He is giving them a glimpse of a different kind of politics; one in which money does not decide, voters do.
Daniel Biss, running for governor in Illinois, is doing the same. Biss is clear about his progressive values. But he is also clear that none of the important issues he is fighting for could ever be achieved without also removing the corrupt influence of money. As he wrote in a Twitter exchange just this week, “money in politics is the root of the problem. … I’d start there.”
"Closing the so-called 'carried interest loophole' would raise over $1 billion in Illinois, and that’s money we could be spending on schools or on lower taxes for working people. But we don’t do it because of who funds the campaigns. We can’t pass legislation to make nursing homes in Illinois follow the law and have adequate staffing so that seniors are cared for in dignity. That’s because of who pays for the campaign.
"We can’t pass legislation to provide totally universal healthcare and cut into the insurance industry’s profits — because of who pays for the campaigns.
"We should never talk about campaign finance without talking about health care, education, taxes, nursing homes, etc. Because that’s what’s at stake!"
I don’t know whether this politics works — as a strategy for getting elected. I am certain that this politics is necessary — if we’re to ever recover a democracy.
We need to acknowledge our differences, honestly. But we need to recognize that nothing is possible until we repair the common ground of this democracy first. That means building a system in which representatives are “dependent,” as James Madison described, “on the people alone.” Not the funders, “the people.” And not “the funders and the people,” but “the people alone.”
These candidates are fighting for this kind of democracy. We need more.
Lawrence Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard and founder of Equal Citizens, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the promise of citizen equality.