Dr. Joe Schwarz will tell you that he’s part of a coalition of conservatives who no longer feel they are part of a political party. Schwarz, a Battle Creek resident, served in the Michigan Senate from 1987-2002 and the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005 and 2006. I’m a student in his undergraduate policy class — called Congress and State Legislatures — and if there’s one take-away message from the course, it’s that the current state of gridlock and partisanship in Washington is not tenable.
Undoubtedly, you’ve already heard this prescription for our country’s woes. But we can all learn something new from a man who served so long — not to mention a man who lost his seat after sticking to his values in a competitive primary.
For perspective on the issue, Schwarz will first point you toward Congressman John Dingell, the Democratic representative of Michigan’s 15th district (which includes Ann Arbor). Dingell is the longest serving member of the House, having served since 1955, and often speaks of a time when Democrats and Republicans were actually cordial to one another. In fact, members of opposing parties used to form friendships and discuss issues over drinks. To our generation, such an image is completely foreign.
When asked why these relationships are no longer socially acceptable, my initial answer was that the two parties have grown further and further apart ideologically in the past three decades. Congressmen Dingell and Schwarz point to something more fundamental. Most representatives no longer live in D.C. — the rent is absurd, and every weekend, they are under enormous political pressure to spend as much time in their home districts as possible. In the past, representatives often spent weekends collaborating across parties on important issues. Now, members of the two parties hardly know anything about each other. And it’s much easier to smear someone you don’t know personally.
Schwarz won’t hesitate to tell you that the extremism is worse on the Republican side than on the Democratic side. But here is a point where I think lots of liberals falter. Every time we talk to each other about the most recent shenanigans of Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, it leads us to the conclusion that gridlock is the Republicans’ fault, which it’s not (completely). It’s a systematic problem. Keep in mind that when Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan rolled out his plan for Medicare Reform, the Democrats used many of the same strategies that Republicans used to fight President Barack Obama’s Health Care Bill.
While we can’t revert to 1955 political conditions, there are many fundamental changes that can make the political system more responsive to the public. Imagine what politics would look like with all the following changes: Candidates could not start campaigning or fundraising for elections earlier than a year prior to the date of the election, states held open primaries instead of party primaries, interest groups were legitimately restricted in the size of their contributions and the use of gerrymandering and filibusters was curtailed.
Popular support for many of these proposals is strong. The problem is that there are few mobilized efforts to ensure that they actually happen. Average citizens do not devote much time to politics, and when they do, they are more likely to devote it to issues they feel strongly about rather than something as dry as political reform. I, for one, have spent much more of my academic energy learning about poverty and labor markets than political systems.
But I’m beginning to question this approach because issue after issue, the pattern is exactly the same. Policy analysts, both liberal and conservative, make proposals that many third party observers would consider reasonable. Yet, when those issues are brought into a political realm that favors extremism, the proposals don’t stand a chance. There are too many good policy proposals that would be considered poisonous under current conditions. We cannot continue on the current path in which policy outcomes are dictated primarily by office holders’ re-election strategies.
So as individual citizens, what do we do? There’s no quick answer. One option is to participate in local organizations that are seeking to change political discourse. Two organizations to which Schwarz introduced us include the Center for Michigan — a nonprofit think tank — and Michigan Campaign Finance Network — a nonprofit focused on the need for campaign finance reform. More ideologically, we may need to change our priorities as voters. Whether you are truly passionate about deficits, tax reform, abortion laws or climate change, it’s time to care about political reform. As politics stand now, reasonable debate on any of the above issues is non-existent.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article spelled Congressman John Dingell’s name incorrectly.