Our divided nation will fall unless we return to American pragmatism
Blockwood is executive vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.
With the 2024 primaries and caucuses underway, political campaigns and pressure are intensifying, demonstrating how divided – and entrenched – our country is. Some believe voters and even public servants must see the world through this same divisive lens.
Government is becoming far too politicized, and until recently I didn’t appreciate the great honor and privilege I had to work in relatively nonpartisan environments throughout my career. It’s quite perplexing given I served for more than a decade in the federal government, which usually screams politics with a capital “P.”
My civil service included work at four different agencies under the leadership of varying Senate-confirmed appointees across several presidential administrations. These organizations were at the forefront of many now controversial issues like immigration and intelligence.
Reflecting on the past, I now recognize that I served during a time when far fewer questions were raised about the government being inappropriately politicized, about politicians exercising more care for personal agendas than the people who elected them. And fewer people questioned whether they should trust that public servants were fulfilling their constitutionally sworn obligations.
Bygone days indeed. Our country is disturbingly polarized, and the future of our republic is at stake if we don’t change course ... and soon.
According to Gallup, long-term American political ideology hasn’t changed much over the years, with those describing their political views as moderate typically holding the pole position (36 percent in 2023). Americans identifying themselves as independents have remained on a perpetual seesaw for many years, but the group has been on a steady climb since 2020 (43 percent in 2023, which ties the 2014 record high).
But where are the movable, moderate, common-sense centrist leaders whose voices haven’t been drowned out and who remain confident in their views, their values and the resiliency of our country? Who can be trusted to not be driven solely by fear of an opposing side? Who doesn’t see issues exclusively from the political spectrum’s farthest edges and is capable of compromise?
It’s time to think beyond left, right and center. Time to move beyond traditional political ideology that creates an identity trap dividing us instead of unifying us and encouraging compromise. It’s time to think about outcomes and what best represents – and best serves – all people. It’s time to change our approach, and return to American pragmatism, seeking outcome-oriented solutions to achieve America’s promise.
Though it hasn’t happened since George Washington more than 200 years ago, perhaps necessity will compel us to elect a truly independent candidate as our president in 2024.
We are our own worst enemy. I am certain adversaries are gleefully watching from afar, patiently awaiting the damage we will happily do to ourselves, damage they couldn’t dream to achieve, damage that inflicts deep and wide impact. Our nation’s politics should be considered our greatest environmental threat — one that gives new meaning to the term “global warming” as the political climate has superheated to a boiling point that is spilling over and destroying everything it touches.
No longer can a person express independent thought without unfair judgment or finding they stand alone in their ideals. Everything — especially when it comes to American laws, policies and values — doesn’t have to emanate from, or be shaped by, extremist perspectives or group think. But that seems to be the prevailing approach to national issues these days, and nonpartisan, bipartisan and centrist positions are becoming just short of impossible to reach.
This opposition and lack of moderation is a main driver of current, internal conflict and will undoubtedly end in civil unrest if left unchecked. According to a CBS News Poll, 49 percent of people surveyed believe future U.S. presidential election losses will result in violence. The deepest, darkest, most disparate corners of the political spectrum have pushed their agendas so intensely that they’ve created an “us or them, for us or against us” mentality, and efforts that have been conspiratorially reinforced across sectors including academia, private industry, the media (most notoriously) and our legal system – are, by all appearances, attempting to shape impressions of political candidates and decide which candidates American voters may consider come November.
The “us or them” mindset creates an impossible situation where no outcome will be accepted, no party will trust election results nor believe the results truly represent the people’s will.
Today’s tactic? Defeat candidates before they get on the ballot. Bankrupt them, isolate them from family and friends, use civil or criminal litigation, tear them down in the media, and attack them – underscoring how they will destroy our democracy, strip us of inalienable rights, or force monolithic compliance on how to think, speak, and live. We must uphold the integrity of our institutions and election processes or risk forever corrupting them and further damaging public trust.
We, the people, are the only ones that can destroy our democracy and undermine the democratic republic values we were founded upon. Let’s not be influenced by propaganda from either side. Let’s follow a simple principle recognized as a fundamental human right: freedom of expression. We may not like what some may say, but we should defend their right to say it. We may not like some candidates or their policy agendas, but we should doggedly defend our electoral rights to decide our next president.
Politicians should stop trying to convince others not to vote for a candidate. Rather, they should demonstrate why they should vote for a better one. Let’s adhere to our long-held norms and borrow from the sage words of Abraham Lincoln — believe in the people, give them the truth and bring the real facts. Let them decide their fate, and let the results of everyone’s collective voting be done without manipulation.
Three things are clear, all of which will require us to hold the outskirts of the political spectrum at bay and fight to put order and trust back in our political system.
- Our country is in trouble but has time to self-correct. There are certainly issues worth fighting for, but we must have discourse or expect irreparable chaos. Leaders must stand up and demand our country respect norms, honor traditions, and just say no to the nonsense, gaslighting, infighting, and political brinkmanship that serves only those at the top and those who engage in it.
- We have strayed from issue politics. We have made it far more personal — focusing on emotions, using divisive and disparaging language, and leveraging various communication platforms to tell the voting public how they should feel about candidates. We must allow Americans to judge candidates based on potential and proven results.
- It’s detrimental to be so malicious and unforgivingly partisan. We must trust the American people and our processes. We should not disregard voter independence or discredit our electoral systems (though it’s long overdue we explore modernization and reform).
Not without flaws, we are nearing our 250th anniversary of this great country. For our democracy to survive another two and a half centuries, we must be practical about the issues affecting our country. We must vote (and do so with our conscience), trusting our fellow citizens to do the same, and believing in the corps of dedicated nonpartisan public servants who will reject capital “P” politics and execute the people’s will through the candidate who wins the presidency in the next election – an election perhaps the most critical in our lifetime, second only to the first one following our nation’s founding.
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