News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.
Big Picture
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

If a bipartisan stimulus felt good, Washington, just try for more of that

Anderson is editor of "Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework" (Springer, 2014) and sought the Democratic nomination for a House seat in Maryland in 2016.

There seem to be as many criticisms of our dysfunctional federal government as there are stars in the sky.

Yes, that's hyperbole, since there are not actually billions of critiques. But the metaphor gets to the point, because the number of justifiable knocks on the system are too many to count.

Most of the critiques include recommendations for ending the dysfunction or at least lessening the problem. The most common remedy for the partisanship paralyzing Washington — driven by so many House members forced to run to the far left or far right to win primaries, leaving too few to represent voters in the middle — is to transform the electoral system. This involves many things, including ending gerrymandering through legislation or litigation at the state level, public financing for elections and protecting minorities from being denied their voting rights.

The novel coronavirus crisis offers an opening to address the dysfunction problem. Indeed, that may have started last month when the Senate voted 96-0 to pass a $2 trillion economic rescue bill negotiated with the Trump administration and then House leaders of both parties worked to get it passed there on a voice vote.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

The sense of satisfaction and relief that White House officials, senators and representatives must all feel, even if many of them were not fully satisfied with the bill, should not go unnoticed — especially as negotiators close in on another stimulus package.

Indeed, last week's Gallup Poll sends a strong signal the public feels good about what they've seen most recently at the Capitol: The monthly approval rating for Congress jumped 8 points, to 30 percent in April — the highest number in longer than a decade and twice what it was at the end of 2017.

What can the members of Congress do with the good vibes they must have about their recent work, and the improved view the public has about them?

Perhaps the essence of the solution for reviving a functional government is to be found here — in the feelings our policy-makers have after producing historic legislation with equivalent amounts of Democratic and Republican buy-in. The importance of this feeling of collective cooperation and common purpose cannot be overestimated.

All the arguments about ending dysfunction begin with a diagnosis of the problem, after which remedies are proposed. The commentators and politicians basically try to "prove" a serious problem exists, then "argue" for a solution. They may be assisted by public sentiment. And in most cases that sentiment, or at least the voices of some interested groups, motivates the politicians to offer proposals.

This is the logical way to approach the problem, but perhaps that's its central flaw. Why continue to rely on empirical analysis of problems, and logical solutions to them, when this approach is not working?

What if we focus instead on what working together feels like, then inspire our politicians to leverage those feelings for the good of the country?

What if we ask our politicians to value those positive sentiments not only when we are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, but also when they are addressing our day-to-day, month-to-month policy challenges?

In short, our politicians need to keep these positive feelings front and center in their minds and hearts, even as they represent their own constituents and their own parties. This may just be another way of calling for more patriotism from our politicians. And if that's what we want to call it, fine.

But one way or another, we need our politicians to be motivated by the kind of positive reinforcement they get if they succeed in a bipartisan endeavor — not be chiefly motivated by trying to defeat the other party.

This approach does not preclude politicians from gathering data and hearing from lobbyists before tackling the nation's problems, including the dysfunction problem itself. It does, however, shift the emphasis to how we want our politicians to feel instead of what we want them to do.

It is a cliche that we pull together in times of war. We are pulling together now to fight the war against the coronavirus. Can we put the feelings of unity and shared purpose — indeed patriotism itself — out front and make secondary the analysis of problems and strategies for solving them? If we do, we will surely have a less dysfunctional government than we have now.

"We can know a good in common that we cannot know alone," was the graceful way the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel closed his 1982 book, "Liberalism and the Limits of Justice." Feminist social thinkers including Carol Gilligan, Virginia Held and Anne-Marie Slaughter have asked us to put feelings first (especially empathy and care) and reject rational, impartial, moral reasoning abstracted from real human relationships. The leader of the Communitarian Movement, sociologist Amitai Etzioni, has warned against the dangers of putting rights before responsibilities rather than putting them on an equal footing.

The time is right to reverse the emphasis of our national politics and foster an environment where politicians who come to Washington put feelings of unity and bipartisan success ahead of partisan victories and beating the other party.

© Issue One. All rights reserved.