Finding America

Bill Craib – Hartland, Vermont

June 5, 2015
ajc @ bus 5 15

The world, and the United States along with it, has gone to hell in a hand basket and it’s all the fault of the media and the government and nobody seems to be doing anything about it or even give a damn. Wait, did I just write that? It sounds like an average Tuesday on the comments section of the USA Today Web site, or perhaps Fox News. Pick just about any place you can leave a comment on the Internet today and you’ll find legions of angry, disenfranchised people venting; they range in level of rancor from pissed off to just plain scary and they are generally completely unencumbered by much actual fact.

But although sadly I tend to agree our country is in a bad place, my intent is not lament. I don’t wish to open up my scrapbooks and yearn for the good old days. The Occupiers of everywhere have mostly given up their occupations and found work and I wouldn’t have been likely to join them were they still out there. I don’t want to complain, I love this country, I want to do something to help and I have an idea. But before we get to that, I think it’s important to look at where we, as United States citizens, are as we enter the summer of 2015 and at least a part of how we got here.

June 2015: Where we Are Today

I don’t recall how the medal count wrapped up in the most recent winter Olympics. I seem to remember that the United States was ahead in overall medals for awhile but maybe the Russian hosts took over the lead at the end…or maybe it was Canada? Regardless, I’m pretty sure USA finished in the top 3. Not the spot at the top we are accustomed to, but not too bad for winter sports. Imagine, though, the outrage, were our athletes to finish 10th in this global competition – or 20th – or 25th?

But 25th is exactly where the United States placed (out of 34) countries in the most recent ranking of math test scores among 15-year olds by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.  Team USA was a little better in Science (22nd) and actually average (17th) in reading.  25 years ago, the United States led the world in the percentage of 25-34 year olds with college degrees. Today, we’re 10th and sinking fast.

So, our students finished behind Latvia. We’ve still got the world’s most vibrant economy and our citizens have the highest standard of living in the world…right? Umm, no. The US scores fifth (behind Norway, Australia, Switzerland and The Netherlands) in the most recent (2014) Human Development Index report from the United Nations. The score comes from a composite of rankings on life expectancy, education and income. However, the same group produces a parallel study that adjusts for inequality (IHDI.) Simply put, this measures the standard of living of the average person rather than the national average, a bit like the difference between median and average. In this ranking, the United States is 28th …behind Hungary but edging out Cyprus and the 16 percent difference between the HDI and IHDI is by far the largest among the top 40 countries in the world.

So, our students stink and there is a growing disparity between the kind of life that different social classes (yes, I used that word intentionally though it is anathema to the very premise our nation was founded on) of Americans have today and can expect to have in the future. We’ve still got jobs…right?  Yeah, most of us.  But not nearly as many as could or should.

Source U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 6 15
Source U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 6 15

The national unemployment rate has dropped to 5.4 percent for the early part of 2015 and it has been falling fairly steadily from the nearly 10 percent rate in 2010 as the country was emerging from the Great Recession.  That’s good news…right? Maybe.  But the Labor Participation Rate (the percentage of people of working age who are actually employed) is at its lowest point (62.7 percent) in nearly 30 years. This figure has been going down just as steadily as the unemployment rate has and if continues to drop at the same rate it has since the turn of the 21st century it will soon reach the same numbers as the late 1940s and 50s. Many of us are probably not old enough to remember that time period first hand, but perhaps you are or have heard about it from your parents or grandparents. Aside from the years during the World Wars, most American women did not work outside the home. Now most do and yet the overall percentage of people working now is heading to a place remarkably similar to the percentage then….see the problem?

Most of the people who do have jobs are making less.  An Economic Policy Institute study found that, for the bottom 70 percent of U.S. wage earners, wages have been stagnant or declined since 2002. This is particularly alarming because of its impact on the American middle class. Another study found that 76 percent of American workers are living paycheck to paycheck. The US economy of today is primarily a consumer-driven economy, 70 percent of our Gross Domestic Product comes from consumer spending. If ¾ of the population cannot afford to buy things, the economy is headed nowhere fast.

The nation’s infrastructure, built around the Interstate highway system more than a half century ago at the expense of other possible modes of public transportation, is literally crumbling. Healthcare costs are in a perpetual upward spiral that will only increase as the demographically giant Baby Boomer generation becomes elderly. President Obama’s Affordable Care Act has become a political lightening rod and across the political spectrum you will find people with problems big and small with it. But beyond it we seem to be making little progress on a solution to this basic problem: fewer and fewer employers offer comprehensive health insurance today and buying it ourselves costs as much or more as a home mortgage.

Harvard Business Review March 2012

You get the point. We, and I use the word proudly as an American, have some big problems that will require big solutions.

And it’s not just us looking for them. No less an authority on economic competitiveness than Nitin Nohria, the Dean of Harvard Business School, wrote persuasively in a cover story a few months back about why the whole world needs and wants the United States to “regain its vibrancy.” But I believe that in order to do so, we will have to overcome the combined effect of three forces that have come together to imbue a kind of “depressed” state of helplessness on the American spirit.

Always On

CNN was founded in June of 1980 and I probably found my way to the channel several times over the course of that decade. But like a lot of people of my generation, I think, my first real recollection of watching CNN occurred during the first Gulf War in 1991. I don’t know whether it was because of the time difference or because of the kind of fighting (mostly rocketry) in which we were engaged, but most of my memories are of coverage of nighttime missile attacks that were taking place overnight there and smack dab in the middle of US primetime.

Being able to see a war unfold live on your TV screen (remember the green flashes of scud missiles?) was not only gripping television, it changed the way Americans perceived access to information forever. Waiting for the next day’s paper to come was too slow and the World Wide Web was still basically a collection of home pages for people that liked to play around with hypertext – there was no news on the early Web, at least not that most of us ever saw.

But CNN ”was there”  and has been there for every big story since, from 9-11 to Katrina to, most recently, Baltimore.  At any time of day or night, you can flip to CNN and, within a few minutes, get an update on the most recent news. But news by a particularly narrow and peculiar definition. Natural disasters – definitely. Public transportation crashes – absolutely. Trials of famous or infamous people – without question. I think we, sadly, have to add riots because they seem likely to continue if we head further down our present path. CNN  and really the rest of the news world is also obsessed with the weather. It is still spring in New England as I write this but I already can’t remember how many storms of the century we had this past winter.

But try this experiment. Turn on your television when you finish reading this and see how long it takes for a story to come up about a piece of legislation being considered in congress…and extra points if you get an actual House or Senate Resolution number. I’ve tried this and a piece of friendly advice, bring a snack or better yet, move the television next to the refrigerator – you are going to be awhile.

Meanwhile, along the way to our “always on’ news cycle another less noticeable phenomenon took place. It has some parallels with another fledgling cable channel of the same era – ESPN.

When ESPN was founded in 1978, two years before CNN, most experts predicted it would never make it. How much appetite, they wondered, did the American populace really have for sports, particularly the kind this shoestring network could afford to carry: tractor pulls, college lacrosse, drag racing. But make it, it did. Owing to some important decisions on sports it could afford that would also generate an audience (college basketball most notable among them) and what to do with the rest of the time that it would not be broadcasting live events, ESPN gradually took hold.

SportsCenter was the centerpiece of that strategy. Initially a half hour, as I recall, highlight show a couple of times a night, SportsCenter and its group of wacky (often downright silly) and impertinent anchors became increasingly popular. Over the years the show has spawned its own 24-hour hour channel, ESPN News, which is a nearly constantly running cycle of SportsCenter. There is also ESPN Radio, mostly made up of sports talk shows, running all day and all night. On the parent channel, Sportscenter leads into and out of most primetime live sporting events, they’ve even built mini fields and courts on set where ex athletes dressed in suits can dissect game strategy (a favorite segment of my wife’s for its comedic value.)

ESPN has become so popular with sports fans (it now carries parts of Major League Baseball, NFL Football, NBA Basketball and most major college sports) that aside from a couple of hours on weekends, the major networks have ceded the landscape to ESPN. Even when ABC does carry NBA basketball (to which it has the rights as a sister entity of ESPN) the broadcasts are called something like: The NBA on ESPN presented on ABC. Who would have thought that was a possibility 20 years ago?  The lesson? Covering sports is about the games to be sure, but perhaps equally important or more important, talking about the games.

Back to CNN. Whether by design or because it happened organically, I’m not sure. But it certainly appears that CNN has come to a similar conclusion about the news. If the story is big enough, it will be there with a crew and it will cover the story hard. Every news show will lead with it and it will be covered from every possible angle. But the rest of the time, broadcasts will be made up of talking about the news, which seems to be a perfectly acceptable substitute to its audience and is infinitely cheaper to produce.

CNN_Obama's_path_to_victory

I don’t know when Nancy Grace started her show at HLN – CNN’s headline news channel. I could look it up, but for these purposes it doesn’t matter. Nancy Grace is, at least figuratively, what much of CNN news looks like today. A former prosecutor and court reporter,  Grace has become famous covering the seedier side of the news. Particularly known for vigilant coverage of whether Casey Anthony, a young mother from Florida, did or did not kill her two-year old daughter (she was found not guilty) Nancy Grace has covered all manner of crime stories with a level of passion that borders on obsession. Grace may be a lovely person, and what she broadcasts is good television and produces undeniably good ratings, but most of it does not fit the definition of what we considered news when I was studying broadcast journalism in college. When I was in school (I graduated from the Newhouse School at Syracuse – admittedly quite a few years ago,) we were taught that news and opinion shouldn’t mix and if they happened to be adjacent to each other, each should be clearly labelled for what it was.

Nancy Grace is hardly alone, however. If you’ve watched CNN’s election night coverage in the last few years, you’ve become used to what election night looks like in the era  of CNN. A big map of red and blue states, that does all kinds of fancy things the anchors play with every few minutes to report the latest “projections” on who is going to win. In between? What a friend of mine likes to call….the blather.

CNN enlists a troupe of “liberal” and “conservative “pundits and all night long they debate what this and that means…does the President have, or not have, a “mandate.” What did the latest congressman getting arrested have to do with the outcome of the race, etc, etc etc. One side wins, one side loses and everyone has to be on one side or the other. As it would on ESPN, a story of a tie or an unresolved conflict leaves us feeling unfulfilled so before you turn off your TV for the night you can be sure you will be told which side won. The rest of the year the coverage cycle is the same – a bit of news: Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Debt Ceiling, school shootings…but all covered as if we are keeping score of something, instead of, crucially, making policy.

Election night ought to be the biggest night of the year for fans of real news. Hundreds of referendums are in front of voters across the country, many that will have lasting impact on the lives of millions of people. Did the voters of x city, approve a public transportation initiative, where did the voters of y state elect to focus  budget cuts…what was the outcome of elections in x number of states voting on common core. But CNN has time for very little of this because we’d rather listen to Mary Matalin and James Carville argue.

To be fair, the public outcry for real news has been deafeningly silent. Media companies (CNN is hardly alone in this world – Fox News and MSNBC cover the news with the same formula) have gotten very very good at understanding who watches (or reads) what. If there was money to be made in dissecting the intricacies of healthcare reform, someone would probably be doing it.  Instead – CNN as I write this, is dissecting the results of a new…CNN (duh)…survey that shows that 48 percent of Americans they polled (vs 47%) approve of the job President Obama is doing. And – I’m not making this up, they have an anchor and two pundits (representing liberal and conservative  -of course) debating what this means.  See the problem?

Beyond Red and Blue

If the mainstream media has led our country to thinking about all issues as black and white (or more specifically red and blue) Congress itself has marched in lockstep and, if anything, taken partisanship to new and increasingly destructive levels.  But before I get to why that’s a big impediment to an effective U.S. government, let’s understand what the term partisanship really means.

Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of Partisan

Definition of PARTISAN

1
:  a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially :  one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance
2
a :  a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy b :  a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines

Does any of this sound familiar? On a scale of 1-10, how helpful are these characteristics likely to be to a group of men and women that are chartered with reaching consensus and compromise? The second definition above (both a and b) refer to partisans as irregular military units which, going back to the 16th century, have fought behind enemy lines in “resistance movements.” Many of the causes fought for by partisans historically have been those most Americans could sympathize with, opposition against Nazi Germany in World War Two, for instance or, further back, Russians against Napoleon’s advances into their country. But Republicans and Democrats, while they may legitimately have different ideas about the best way to govern, are still on the same side…right? If not…what does that mean to a representative democracy?

But increasingly, not only do Republicans and Democrats not appear to be on the same side, they – primarily a group of of relatively new Republican members of congress, define themselves as not being on the same side. To put it another way, making sure the other side doesn’t have any success is considered success, which, of course, sounds a lot like the definition of resistance.

worse than it looks

Robert Draper, a writer for the New York Times and National Geographic describes this problem at length in a 2012 book: Do Not Ask What Good we Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.  The following year  a pair of longtime Washington political scientists, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, the former from Brookings Institution, the latter from American Enterprise Institute, released It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.  Later that year, Mike Lofgren – a Republican congressional aide for 28 years in both the House and Senate penned The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats became Useless and the Middle Class got Shafted.

None of these gentlemen appear to be political zealots in any form but I encourage you to drop any of these books into your Kindle and decide for yourself. They are to me, anyway, horrifying page turners and riveting in a way no book about politics should ever be. All of them make the case in one form or another that beginning soon after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 and gaining momentum in the 2010 midterm election cycle, a group of young Republican congressmen known as the Young Guns: Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, Kevin McCarthy from California and Eric Cantor from Virginia led an effort to block any initiative if it could be construed as political success for the President until such time as he could be replaced.

It is interesting that certain words get strung together to label historical events and remain as labels in history: Watergate Scandal, Hostage Crisis, Challenger Disaster. The events that unfolded in 2011 and again in 2013 as a byproduct of this strategy and the President’s response to it will be referred to in the history books of the future as the Debt Ceiling Fiasco. It is recent history so I’m sure you remember because, ironically this action, or lack thereof, of Congress got plenty of media attention. Twice now our government has been brought to the point of complete shutdown by placing ideology above consequence. In Draper’s book he quotes Kevin McCarthy, now House Majority Leader; “If you act like you are in the minority, you are going to stay in the minority. We’ve got to challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign.”

A strategy I saw recommend more than once during the debt ceiling fiasco to “starve the beast” (ie. – just stop paying bills until agreement could be reached on a dramatically reduced budget) would almost be comical if it wasn’t so painful. It is analogous to deciding which household bills to pay by picking them out of a hat. “Good news honey, we still have our Netflix account, now if we could just get the power turned back on .” Or, to be more precise I guess, “we’re not going to pay any bills until we do an analysis to figure out which to pay first and get a raise at work to cover the difference between those things we have to have and our current income. ” But when you stop paying the mortgage you get evicted. When you stop paying for the car it gets repossessed and when you lose the car (and shower) you lose your job.  Really…would anyone do this in their own personal life? Would you elect someone to Congress who would?

2013, the year that brought us a total government shutdown, was at least record-breaking in terms of party unity. According to Congressional Quarterly, House Republicans voted with their caucus an average of 92% of the time (up from 91% in 2011) and Senate Democrats voted together on average 94% of the time. In a sad reflection on a vicious cycle, politicians are becoming more and more representative of their constituents even as they become more ideological and polarized.

Source: American National Election Studies via New York Magazine
Source: American National Election Studies via New York Magazine

A study from Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz finds that voters see the opposing party’s supporters in very negative terms.  In 1972, when asked to place themselves and each of the two parties on a seven-point scale from conservative to liberal less than 20 percent of the participants said they were four steps or more away from the other guys (the opposing party.) Now, almost half do and more than 20 percent see themselves as 5 steps away, which almost none did in the earlier group.  Why? Abramowitz’s study looks at several factors, chiefly the demographic makeup of the two parties, which are becoming increasingly different. But I might offer something else – I’d call it the “12-year old effect.”

Research that came out last year and was written about in the humorously titled Huffington Post blog entry Do Obama Mamas Make Democratic Babies confirms what I would have thought and always assumed to be the case – school age children overwhelmingly adopt the politics of their parents, particularly if their parents agree politically as they generally do. While the blog points to some parallel research to this that suggest some of school-aged partisanship can actually be inherited, I am a subscriber to the nurture vs nature side of this debate. It stands to reason that if Mom and Dad think the Dems are great and the GOP’s the Devil it will be reflected in all kinds of ways in the household – some obvious, others less so. Kids pick up what they hear and see but they have very little opportunity – until they get older, to hear about the merits of the other side of political issues. Now remember where most adult Americans get their news, if they get it all – they get it from outlets they “trust” – ie. – that present what they want to hear. When people hear the same thing often enough on Fox News or MSNBC they become more and more convinced of its authenticity  -even absent corroborating evidence. In the era of Fox News, it will be surprising if people that “consider themselves five or more steps away” (this wording is important for reasons I’ll cover at the end) don’t become the norm in the next decade.

But those of us (and I’m painfully aware that I’m dating myself here) that remember I’m Just a Bill on Schoolhouse Rock shouldn’t have any trouble seeing the problem here. Laws are intentionally hard to make in the United States system of government. They have to pass a variety of hurdles just to get through each house of Congress and then be signed by the President. Particularly on controversial and complicated issues (and most of the tough problems mentioned at the beginning of this story fall squarely into this category) collaboration and compromise are required to move policy forward. It is not surprising, then that the 113th Congress (which ended in 2014) managed to enact just 296 laws (3% of bills presented) over its term. This was actually slightly better than the 284 enacted by the 112th Congress but those two groups were by far the least productive, by this measure anyway, since World War Two.

Reaction to all this by the general public is both predictable and shocking. According to Gallup, American’s job approval rating for Congress averaged 15% in 2014 – slightly better than the historic low of 14% in 2013. – its hard to even remember a world where that number was as high as 56%, as it was in 2001. Dissatisfaction was one thing Republicans and Democrats could agree on, the 15% approval rating was consistent among both parties. If you are a business owner, think of a world in which only 15 percent of your employees are getting their jobs done satisfactorily. Sports fan? 15 percent of your players are good enough to take the field  – Teacher? 15% of your class passes. But here’s the amazing part…and I mean hell-in-a-hand-basket kind of amazing. What percentage of these people did we send back to do it again for another two years? 95%…yes…ninety five percent of congressional incumbents up for reelection in 2014 won their jobs back.

Epidemic Apathy

If you are banging your head against the table thinking about the 95%, I will give you a moment…Ready? …Another minute…Ok?

Now here’s another head scratcher. What percentage of the voting eligible population produced this baffling result? 36%. Mid-term elections always produce lower turnout than Presidential elections – often 20% lower. But this number in 2014 is the lowest percentage of the eligible voter population since 1942 when a very large portion of the American populace was otherwise occupied by World War Two. Barely a third of the people who could have voted for the people that would shape the nation’s policy for the next two years actually did.

Source: PBS via National Election Project
Source: PBS via National Election Project

So what happened to the other 64 percent of potential voters last November 4th? Were they too busy? Too disinterested? Wanted to get home to vote on The Voice instead? Quite possibly all of the above. In It’s Even Worse than it Looks, Mann and Ornstein offer some plausible explanations for historically low voter turnout including lack of access to easy voter registration and polling places, the increasing disenfranchisement of centrist voters and even the day of the week – Why Tuesday? they ask. They also offer a compelling argument for mandatory elections, similar to those in Australia, where citizens who don’t vote pay a nominal fine of around $15 if they don’t go to the polls. It’s hard to believe such a law could gain traction in this country but the debate about it would certainly be entertaining. One benefit of the idea is particularly attractive. The authors assert that the Australian politicians they have talked with say that mandatory voting has changed the way they campaign. Instead of spinning up their partisan base and getting out their vote, the secret to success lies in appealing to centrist voters who feel less passionate/idealistic about any particular topic but represent an absolute majority of the overall population. In other words, in elections where everyone or almost everyone votes, outcomes are decided by people who see a lot more gray than black or white.

But although I don’t have a shred of statistical data to back this up – I’m pretty sure I know who most of the 64 percent are and I don’t think it’s people who couldn’t get to the polls or get registered. It’s people like a friend and colleague of mine who, when I told him about the seeds of the idea behind the Project to Find America said, “That sounds cool Bill, but I’m really not political.” This is a successful, smart and educated young man who recently got married and just became a dad. I don’t know for sure but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he skipped the last election. Why? He probably just didn’t see the point.  Another friend, this one a college professor with a Ph.D, said flatly “I don’t think it can be done,” when I told him I wanted to try to help fix Congress’ ills. He’s a lifelong independent who sees the polarized views on both sides of the political spectrum as hopelessly unrepresentative of his own. I myself have spent most of my adult life among what I think is a majority of people who cringe and head for the corner when the topic turns to politics at the neighborhood cookout. In my experience, the people who do venture into this morass are often some combination of: ill informed, blusterous, narcissistic or drunk.

going negative

So where and why did we lose these people’s voices in the political process and become unwilling to even talk about politics? While there are probably many more contributing factors,  there are a few key reasons why people check out. One is the corrosive effect of partisanship but we’ve covered that one pretty well. Another is the election cycle itself. It lasts forever. We are more than 17 months from the 2016 presidential election and yet in New Hampshire, near my house, candidates on both sides visit little towns almost daily they will never come to again. Isn’t it natural for the people here to ask….”didn’t we just do this?” Even congressional races begin earlier, by January of 2016 -only halfway through their current term, many candidates, especially in prospective competitive races will be turning a good portion of their attention to campaigning. Professional athletes, at least, keep playing while they renegotiate the contract they just signed.

But the longer campaigns might be tolerable if they weren’t so negative. If candidates were using all this run up time to talk about solutions…any solutions…to the big problems of the day, you could argue that a
long election cycle would be a good thing. But few do. Instead, they throw mud, early and often at their opponent, the sitting President and “the other party.”  It has been more than 20 years since a pair of Stanford University researchers studied the effect of negative advertising and published a book of the findings titled Going Negative: How Political Ads Shrink and Polarize the Electorate. The title is a nice summation of their findings and although the book is dated, the problem is as real as ever. A new study conducted by Wesleyan University during the 2014 midterms found that over a particular two-week period, 55% of ads in U.S. Senate races were negative.

The Going Negative study placed 1992 Senate races (a presidential election year) into three groups: Positive Campaigns, Mixed Campaigns and Negative Campaigns. It found that there was a 4.5 % difference in voter turnout between states with positive and negative campaigns. A 4.5% difference may not sound like a lot – but it represents over one million people. Political strategists would be quick to point out that statistically, attack ads simply work better. They are remembered more frequently and produce more votes than positive messages. Less frequently they might also admit that they have an affect frequently desired by the minority party; which is to produce the exact outcome we’re talking about – they cause moderates to throw up their hands and stay home and let the election be decided by their partisan base. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Finding America

Or perhaps I should say, I hope it doesn’t have to be this way. Full disclosure – I am an inveterate optimist. I can’t help it, It’s in my DNA I guess – you can ask my family. But I really believe we can fix this problem with our government and I’m bolstered in that opinion by my unshaken belief that the American system of government, as laid out in the Constitution, is the best that mankind has yet devised. You see, to me, as confounding as the fact that 64% of U.S., eligible voters didn’t vote in the last federal elections is…it also means they/we can begin changing this reality…today. If 95% of the country had voted to send 95% of the most ineffective congress in history back to Washington, well, that would be discouraging. But only a third of us did.

If we don’t want to restrict ourselves to the “news” any particular corporate media company wants to serve up to us – in the age of the Internet we do not have to. The next time they are getting ready to talk about the latest storm of the century (you will know because they have a reporter dressed in a rain slicker doing something nobody else would do in their right mind – like hanging out on the Atlantic City boardwalk at 10 pm) flip it off and see what your congressman has been up to (Govtrack.us is a great source.) We can and should choose from a variety of news outlets. Not sure of the veracity of a particular “fact” presented by the pundit you are watching passing off opinion as news? Google it – you will find someone else’s perspective. Judge for yourself.

And there is one last thing that gives me hope,  in fact – it is the central theme of the Project to Find America and the basis of what I plan to spend much of my foreseeable future uncovering and writing about. Remember that Emory University study I mentioned earlier? The one where an increasing number of members of both parties  view themselves as ideologically farther away (four or five steps of seven) from the other party? It’s great research and I don’t find it at all difficult to believe that people “consider themselves” farther away from the opposing party. But are they, in fact? I don’t think so – not even close and I believe that understanding this fact can help us regain a national spirit of consensus and compromise that will help the American middle (aka the 64%) regain control of the U.S. political process and move the nation forward.

Consider two districts. The Kansas-1st (which makes up a large majority of the land area in the state) is represented by Republican Tim Huelskamp. The district is as “red” as it gets. Voters in the Kansas 1st have voted for the GOP in every congressional election, except one two-year hiatus, since 1875. If you head out to Congressman Huelskamp’s Web site you will find that he, like all members of Congress, lists a number of “issues” he’s focused on and a snapshot of how he feels about them. Among the issues (there are more than a dozen): Agriculture, Economy and Jobs, Education, Healthcare, Veterans.

The Massachusetts-2nd, conversely, is about as “blue” as it gets. The district, which covers the central part of the state, is represented by Democrat Jim McGovern. Although the district does have a bit of a Republican past (right after taking over from the Whigs in 1855) it has voted for the Democrat, with one exception, in every election since 1929. On Congressman McGovern’s site he also lists the issues he’s thinking about. Among them: Agriculture, Economy and Jobs, Education, Healthcare, Veterans. Even the wording of the issues is exactly the same. To be sure, there are differences in the issues, Congressman Huelskamp lists Tax Reform among his, Congressman McGovern has Hunger on his issues page. More importantly, their views on how to approach the issues that both districts care about are quite different. But the point is – both districts’ constituents care about them and most (though perhaps not all) people in those districts want to see Congress make progress on them.

I need to preface my next thought because, while it was quite some time ago, I spent some time working on Capitol Hill. I was young and in college and came to Washington with lots of ideas of my own only to find that there were a lot of really smart people with ideas different than mine. I came to find that most members of Congress are intelligent, articulate people who are trying to do the best by the American people and I don’t believe that has changed. However, the current situation in Congress reminds me of one of my 7-year old son’s play dates. More often than not, when another kid comes over, they start playing happily but at some point they decide they want to do different things. My boy, who is quite as strong willed as any member of Congress, insists that he knows what will make them both happiest. But the other kid doesn’t want to do that, he wants to do something else. My wife and I do what I expect most parents would do. We say, “okay Alistair – why don’t you do what your friend wants to do for awhile and then you will get a turn.” That usually works it out and you know what? Every now and then it turns out that whatever one of them wanted to do really was more fun for both of them.

As voters, we not only have the opportunity, we have the responsibility to dictate similar behavior from congress. If Timmy and Jimmy can’t agree, we need to make sure that they compromise toward a solution instead of digging in their heels and doing nothing.  We also need to make sure that they are playing fairly. Did anyone else see this sentence from a story in the headlines a few weeks ago as strange:

Newser.com
Newser.com

“Senate leaders on Tuesday morning announced a deal on a long-stalled anti-human-trafficking bill, setting up a vote to confirm Loretta Lynch as attorney general as soon as tomorrow.”

Set aside the oddity of their being a long debate on an anti-human trafficking bill (did the pro-human traffickers raise a fuss?) what do these things have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing – zilch…nada. Except that Senator Mitch McConnell refused to bring up Lynch’s nomination for a vote until the other bill was passed.  This may be the way that Washington has worked for a long time but its pretty clear its not what the founding fathers had in mind. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety and happiness. Government exists for the interests of the governed, not for the governors.” For a representative of a single state to hold up the appointment of the nation’s highest law enforcement officer for a half year to advance his own political agenda is unconscionable and McConnell should be held accountable. By Whom? By Us. Here’s how.

The Voter’s Pledge

Let me be clear, I’m not advocating that we “throw all the bums out” and start over. Even were it likely that we could simply replace all the current members of congress with others, and it most certainly is not, I think we’d be writing about the same problems two or four years from now and have traded in an enormous amount of expertise and experience that could and should be very valuable in solving our nation’s biggest challenges. Instead, I just want to get this group of congressmen and women to be more effective in delivering the will of the majority of American people. Those who can’t, or won’t, we will send home. How do we start? I’d propose that we, and in the age of connected social media, we can be a very large group of people, agree to a pretty simple set of rules we want our representatives to live by.  I’m calling it The Voter’s Pledge and I hope you will join me in taking it. There are five tenets, one for each finger, which might make it easy to turn the political discussion to something positive at your neighborhood cookouts this summer.

1. Stop Finger Pointing.

We pledge to support current representatives and future candidates that talk more about their own (or other) proposed solutions to problems rather than what’s wrong with other approaches. We simply have to move out of our current blame-the-other-guy cycle, which accomplishes nothing except making it harder to find common ground in the future. You know this to be true. Imagine you are sitting around the conference table at work wrestling with some project that’s behind schedule and one of your co-workers says to your boss, “well this whole problem is his (your) fault.”  You would need to be a pretty strong person to then advocate for that person’s position…no matter how well reasoned.

Here’s a quick way to get started. Go to your representatives Web site (don’t know who your representative is? You aren’t alone but more on this in a bit)  and check their press releases – they all have them, probably under media. Count the first 10 that have to do with substantive issues (naming the post office doesn’t count) and see whether the tone in them is positive (as in here’s what we should do to fix this problem) or negative (as in here’s who’s fault this problem is) and see which are more prevalent. If it is the latter, use the handy contact me e-mail link to send your representative a suggestion that they begin to focus a lot more on solutions than blame.

five fingers

This goes double for attack ads. They simply are the wrong way to decide on substantive issues. 30 second television spots really all are for that matter. If your current rep or candidate in your district runs attack ads in the upcoming election cycle (ads will be coming your way again all too soon) send them a note on the first appearance telling them to pull it or have it pulled. The second time, tell them you are thinking hard about supporting someone else and copy it to Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn. When enough people have done this, it will make a difference.

2. End the Partisan War

The United States faces challenges that have many more shades of gray than black and white. We pledge to support candidates who look beyond simplistic labels: Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative and demonstrate that by doing what they were sent to Washington to do: collaborate, compromise and reach consensus.

I used the word republican ten times in this article and democrat eight times – they were important in understanding the historical context of where we are. But in the upcoming Project to Find America blog, I will try not to use them at all. Or the words conservative and liberal. I hope you will let the policies of your representatives (or lack thereof) speak for themselves and I don’t want to make it more difficult by inserting labels that have mostly lost their meaning. Govtrack.us. which I mentioned earlier, makes it easy to see how often a representative works with members of the other party to find cosponsors for their bills. How often does yours? Admittedly, bipartisan bill sponsorship is only one way to think about a representative’s willingness to reach consensus. Ultimately you will have to decide for yourself. Is your representative generally voting the agenda you and your fellow constituents support,  or is he or she voting the agenda of a national political party. If it’s the latter, ask them to think for themselves, or find a candidate who will.

3. Penalize Reps who Engage in Obstructionist Politics

We pledge to pressure representatives who thwart the will of the people through backroom politics to stop. If they don’t we will look for new representatives who will. We will also encourage politicians to pursue legislation that will close loopholes that clog the political process.

Deal making is part of Congress – it has been around as long as the institution itself. In its most collaborative and productive sessions, Congress has been characterized by deals – “you vote with me on this and I’ll vote with you on that.” As long as those agreements are not flying in the face of what is best for their constituents, I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with this, in fact, its hard to imagine reaching consensus without it.

US_Senate_cloture_since_1917

But in the last decade or two, an entirely different kind of politics has become much more common than it has ever been before. In this version the rep above says, “you vote with me on this or I won’t let the bill you care about be voted on at all (see Senator Mitch McConnell above.)  Filibusters – the idea of delaying vote on an issue, indefinitely, was a relative rarity through most of U.S. history.  Cloture motions,  the process in the Senate by which Filibusters are forced to end and the issue brought to a vote, show how much that has changed. According to the Senate Web site, from 1917 through 1960 there were no more than two cloture votes in any two-year session of congress with two exceptions (when there were 7 and 6 respectively.) Throughout the 1970s and 80s that number grew significantly to an average of 36 motions per session and in the 90s it grew again, in fact – it doubled to 72. But our current version of congress has taken filibustering to a whole new level. How many cloture motions were there in the 113th (2013-14) congress …253. 253 times in a two-year period Senators had to actually vote in order to agree to keep doing their jobs.

Holds, a process that is allowed to be secret of delaying consideration of an issue and legislative amendments are also increasing. But the most egregious examples of political time wasting are amendments to legislation that are designed specifically to make it unpalatable to a majority. Members of both political parties are responsible for these “poison pills.” The latest, government funding bill, which allowed the government to stay open last December, was very narrowly instead of easily passed because of the addition of two GOP-introduced riders that scaled back campaign finance rules and provisions of the Dodd/Frank Wall Street Reform Act. Why should these issues be allowed to connected?  Because we allow them to be but it has to stop. If we can speed up baseball, we ought to be able to solve legislative gridlock.

4. Make Process not Points

We pledge to support representatives or new candidates who are more interested in governing and creating process than scoring political points. This is not a contest nor a game, we are all on the same side here.

Admittedly, it is not always easy to see which is which. Given the relative paucity of news coverage on actual legislative work, knowing how a representative is behaving, let alone what is motivating him or her can be tough. I will try to help (see below) but ask yourself this question about your representative or other members of Congress – are they more focused on trying to win reelection than producing policy changes that will move the country forward? If they are out to win at all cost, tell them, and if necessary show them –  the cost is losing.

5. The Voter’s Pledge

This last one is for us. We pledge to understand enough about who is representing us, what they believe in and what actions they are taking to know whether they are abiding by the precepts above and whether they are representing the best interests of their constituency and the majority of American people.

I know what you are thinking. I don’t know what district I live in nor whom my congressional representative is, how am I going to judge anything about the job they are doing as an individual?

Well, good question. But know first – you are probably not alone. How many people know who their representative in the House of Representatives is? Truth is – I don’t know. I looked hard for this answer on the Internet and couldn’t find it (if you can – drop me a line.) But I did find a Wall Street Journal article that quotes a 2000 study that says that only 51 percent of Americans can name one of their U.S. senators and only half of those can name both so, given that Senators generally have a higher profile than House members, I think its safe to assume that lots of people reading this don’t know who their congressman is. Why? well – I mentioned the lack of news coverage and our epidemic apathy earlier – those are both big reasons. Redistricting doesn’t help.

In a refresher on the representative process: As mandated in the Constitution, every ten years the U.S. census data comes out and tells us, among other things, how many U.S. citizens there are and where they live. House of Representatives seats are divided up by state according to population and then the states with more than one representative figure out how to divide that population evenly into districts (currently about 710,000 individuals per district.) This, of course, means that both the district numbers and the cities and towns they include will change more than once in many voter’s lifetimes.  Texas, for example, gained four seats as a result of the 2010 census meaning residents of several districts are no longer in the district they used to be. The ever-increasing practice (on both sides of the political aisle) of Gerrymandering, redrawing district lines to maximize political gain, is also responsible for frequent changes to district maps.

Knowing which district you live in, as in the number (Texas 25th) probably isn’t particularly important. But if you don’t know who your representative is (and what other cities and towns are in your district) there is no way to know whether they are really representing you and your neighbors or living up to the expectations we should have of all members of Congress. I’m here to help.

The Project to Find America

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Beginning in June 2015. I will begin a daily blog in which I profile each of the 436 congressional districts. In addition to the basic facts: a district map and the name and Web address of the current representative, I plan to cover two things about each stop on this virtual journey.

The first is a look at what makes each district unique, and as you will see there is a lot. We live in an amazing country full of natural beauty, rich history, thriving businesses, vibrant arts and literary communities, passionate sports fans and outstanding restaurants and local cuisine. Nowhere else in the world is there anything like it. Writing a daily account of everything that’s wrong with the nation wouldn’t be much fun to write and less fun to read. I want to write about why our country is worth fighting for and worth expending the will and effort required to reforge the broken link between Americans and the people who represent us in Congress. I’m also hopeful that by reading about districts other than your own, both near and far, you will see what I’ve observed over the course of a lifetime of U.S. travel: one person may live in a “blue state” and another in a “red state” – but they have much more in common than things that separate them. If you live in a district I’ve written about, I hope you will tell us what you would recommend as notable sights to see or interesting things to know when people visit your neck of the woods.

The second focus of each district profile will be what I’ve been able to discover about the issues of importance in the local area and what is being done about them in Congress. I have my own political views, of course, but they aren’t the subject of this blog and I don’t expect you to care what they are. Any praise or critique of current members will be confined to how they are doing at producing legislation that promote progress on the issues that seem to matter in their district or evidence that a representative is not living up to the tenets of the Voter’s Pledge above. As there is in the first section, there will be room for comments and if you live in the district, I’d love to hear about the issues you think are important and proposed solutions to them. However, this is a site about progress and there is no room for negativity and finger pointing. If you want to bash people or ideas (or the sites I’ve chosen to list among places of interest) I will thank you in advance not to here. Let’s instead, set an example for members of Congress of the type of informed positive debate we expect from them. Let’s practice an approach that noted business expert and author Roger Martin calls Integrative Thinking. Instead of “playing the Devil’s Advocate” and telling people what’s wrong with their idea, try writing… “Yes, and….” and then adding your ideas on solving the problem whether or not they actually build on a previous concept. Not only is it a less contentious approach, it also serves to get more ideas and potential solutions out on the table faster

Or…What?

If you’ve made it this far, thank you. Plowing through a few dozen column inches of what a former editor of mine used to call Raw Craib can be tough stuff. But maybe you are still wondering, why this fixation with Congress Bill?, particularly the House of Representatives? There are already more than a dozen announced Presidential contenders for 2016 – why don’t we wait and see what they can do? Perhaps you are a subscriber to one or more potential fixes for Congress: term limits, third parties, campaign finance reform, balanced budget amendment, etc, etc. etc.

Well – to put it plainly – nothing can happen from a policy perspective in the U.S. system of government without Congress making it happen. If it costs money, in one shape or form Congress approves it. Reasonable minds can differ greatly on whether any of the approaches above would have effect; what you can’t argue with is this – in order to get anywhere, any of them will requite significant action by Congress.

As for the next President fixing this problem…if we have learned anything from the Obama Presidency and the Bush Presidency before it, it is that partisan politics can trump Presidents even at the very height of their political power (ie,. soon after they have been elected.) There are some encouraging ideas coming from candidates across the spectrum even if they are a bit light on details, but that only makes it the more important that we get our House(s) in order.

Perhaps you believe that some galvanizing great thinker will ride in on a white horse and spur everyone on to consensus and progress. He or she will get the two parties to work together, stop the pervasive finger pointing in Congress and restore faith in government among the American people. Do you look out on the horizon and see this person? Me neither. If Congress is going to be fixed, we will have to fix it.

I am excited to begin the journey and hope you will take the pledge, follow the blog and join me in trying to do just that.

“Will not the good people respond to a united , and earnest appeal from us? Can we, can they, by any other means, so certainly, or so speedily, assure these vital objects? We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’  The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Abraham Lincoln 1862

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