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Debate moderators and voters should be asking presidential candidates what they would do to help heal our national divisions, writes Michael V. Murphy.

The question to ask in 2020

Murphy is director of the FixUS initiative at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which educates the public about issues with significant fiscal policy impact.

A dozen Democratic primary debates have already been announced, with the first taking place this week. While everything from Medicare for All to impeachment and immigration are sure to be raised, I fear not a single question will be asked on the topic most needing discussion – the state of our democracy.

Whether in Iowa living rooms, New Hampshire union halls or South Carolina coffee shops, the presidential primaries offer a chance to raise issues that often fall off the radar once nominees are chosen and the general election is under way. The first primaries and caucuses are a mere seven months away and there's no doubt that countless advocacy groups are already on the ground, organizing and hoping to elevate their issues with both voters and candidates.

Having run a coalition effort to bring attention to the importance of the national debt in the 2016 cycle, I'm intimately familiar with the work being undertaken by advocacy groups in these early states. Unfortunately it is now four years later, and our debt situation has greatly deteriorated. Next year, the federal government will spend more on interest payments on the debt than it spends on children – in other words, we'll be doing more to finance our past than invest in our future.

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While candidates for federal office are and must be asked how they will fix the debt, this time around there is a more pressing question that needs to be asked – one that affects not only the debt, but the ability to make progress on a multitude of issues confronting the electorate.

The question goes something like this:

"My primary issue of concern is [fill in the blank], but politics in Washington have been mired in gridlock for years. Even when things are passed in Washington, it is often by party-line votes with the risk that it will be overturned after the next election given how divided we are as a nation. As [president, senator or House member] what changes will you make to help heal our national divisions and ultimately improve our government's ability to function and address pressing challenges? And how will you lead in Washington to make sure these changes are enacted?"

Pinning candidates down on specifics here is important, given that politicians for years have paid lip service to the need to bring us together to solve problems but to no avail.

The worsening of the debt, along with a range of other policy problems, symbolizes the brokenness of our political system – one that routinely discourages making tough choices or achieving bipartisan compromise, that focuses on short-term political gain at the expense of solving long-term issues, and that in many ways is set up to reward hyper-partisanship over making progress on behalf of the American people.

Consider the following report card tracking our lack of progress since the start of this century, the time in which the millennial generation, now the largest eligible voting bloc, came of age to engage in and observe our political discourse:

Admittedly, focusing on just these stats is a gross oversimplification of the issues facing our nation. Each of these illustrative problems have strong ideological differences on how they should be addressed, and our system of government was designed to be slow in enacting change.

But what is important is this – majorities of Americans would agree that some sort of resolution is desirable. We have policy ideas that have been developed by those in each party, yet minimal progress has been made.

The hyper-partisanship that has come to define our politics has produced a predictable, all too familiar cycle. Major legislation is passed on a party-line vote, with the opposition vowing to undo what the majority has done.

Is it any wonder why public trust in government is at record lows?

As Albert Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. While continuing to press for action on the debt and other issues remains important, the political climate seems ripe for a cross-partisan coalition to come together under common cause to reform our political system.

The good news is the seeds of such an effort have already been planted. Over the past few years a multitude of groups have sprouted up, dedicated to better understanding the root causes of our political divisions and advancing changes.

Some of these seek to enact electoral and governance reform, such as redistricting, campaign finance reform, ethics reform, changes to congressional rules and a host of other institutional reforms. Others are studying how our economic system has contributed to rising anxiety and political tension, and encouraging action to address increasing economic disparities and an economic system perceived as no longer working for many Americans. There are also those attempting to promote new models of civic engagement and civil discourse, seeking to confront a growing cultural divide and a sense of lost shared values.

Much like fixing the debt, there is no silver bullet or cure-all that will address the polarization that has led us to this state of affairs. The root causes are interrelated, long in the making, and may take years to enact required changes to alter our trajectory. With all eyes on 2020, and the nation's attention focused on politics, it is incumbent upon those who seek to lead our nation to answer how they would address the meta issue of our time and for us to ask it.

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