The people have a right to co-create policy with our representatives.
Political analysts around the world have been noting the extreme negative tone of the 2014 midterm election campaign in the U.S. Outside groups that are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on smears and innuendo are degrading the political debate. The ugliness of the campaign has exacerbated the bitterness many Americans feel toward the political process itself.
That bitterness tends to be connected to a feeling of detachment or of access denied. People believe they do not have access to their elected officials and that the parties do not respond to their day-to-day needs. This detachment is driven partly by the apparent inability of leading national political figures to work together, which leaves a great deal of important work unfinished.
The negativity of the seemingly permanent partisan divide and the resulting all-around smear campaign is turning people off and causing real harm to our democracy. As citizens recoil from the relentless attack ads, they disengage from their own representatives in government, effectively giving themselves less say in policy and hardening the feeling that government does not know or think about their interests.
Radical partisans and special interests looking to turn the American political process into a money game are putting up walls between the American people and their government.
When people refuse to support capable, conscientious elected officials who often disagree with them, in pursuit of some kind of “ideologically pure” preferred candidate, the problem gets worse. Too many people are foolishly intolerant of opposing views.
As someone committed to working with everyone of all political persuasions to build consensus and focus our representatives on smart solutions, it has been tragic to watch this kind of campaign for division unfold. Treating issues, problems and solutions as partisan playthings is dangerous; treating one party as friend and one as foe is capitulation for anyone working for a real solution to a challenge that affects the whole of our society.
On the big issues, we all have a stake in the outcome. On climate, for instance, the problem is one of economics and geophysics. The problem knows nothing of Democrats or Republicans, and the solution is not the antithesis of anyone’s principles. The best solution will build value for all of us, make our country and our economy stronger and restore to relevance the broad pragmatic political center.
I have heard radical partisans on both sides of the aisle say openly they would rather just keep fighting without success than interact with members of the other party. What such radicals don’t seem to understand is that, in taking on that attitude, they actually surrender their citizenship. And when they push others to adopt this view, they push others to surrender their citizenship.
At a recent talk, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen said the idea that we should all agree on all things was, to him, “horrifying.” If we all shared only one view, we would be less intelligent, both individually and as a group. What’s more, an inability to function in a world where people hold different views makes us less free.
What makes Washington appear out of touch with ordinary Americans is not that candidates aren’t talking about issues people care about. It’s that while they fail to work together, insistently using language that appears designed not to allow for nonpartisan collaboration, their campaigning appears to encourage the idea that citizens do not have an active role to play in government.
While well-meaning candidates earnestly contend they are uniquely suited to be responsible representatives in government, the message of the campaign seems to be that money, party and ideology trump any possibility for on-the-ground collaboration among citizens.
We must resist the idea that citizens, as individuals or as coalitions, don’t matter. Our democracy is made of citizens, and our engagement is what decides the kind of future we will have. The only way campaign spending or toxic messages urging us to disengage can change that is if we allow them to. Disengagement is surrender; partisanship in policy-making is less than full citizenship.
We all have a right to be at the table, and the message the people should send to the two parties is: Make sure the fabric of democratic engagement doesn’t come apart. We want to be present. We have a right to decide our own future and we will not surrender the policy-making realm to any interest that views its hold on power as the ultimate lever of action.
The people have a right to co-create policy with our representatives. Let’s focus on that and bring our lawmakers the support they need to work together for good solutions. If we want more responsive politics, we should get to know our representatives and make constructive contributions to their ability to work together for a better future.
Joseph Robertson is global strategy director for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that educates citizens and empowers them to work as teams and play a role in making policy.
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This oped was first published in the Times of Trenton, on November 13, 2014. Follow The Times of Trenton on Twitter @TimesofTrenton. Find The Times of Trenton on Facebook.