Finding Better

This Weekend I lamented the fact that about three quarters of the races to choose the members of the next (117th) Congress are already effectively determined a year before the election. The names may change, a little, but mostly we know which party is going to represent each district and that mostly it will be the incumbent..

This leads me to two reactions. The first is, maybe my non-political, “why bother,” friends have had it right all along. Why bother seems a reasonable response to a system in which the content of a politician’s message has almost no bearing on whether or not they win. The other is, if you were looking for an explanation of “how we got here,” this would do very nicely. If 75 percent of the races are already determined (and a much larger percentage than that are already “likely” to go with a given party,) then where is the incentive to do anything other than polish up that D or R on your lapel? Why run the risk of actually proposing anything?

But what if it wasn’t this way? Imagine a world in which we decide which candidate to vote for based on what they actually say. Perhaps instead of which attack ad is more successful or which party spends more money on them we might decide to vote for someone because they are proposing a specific solution to something we would like to see addressed and a believable story about how they are going to get other people to go along with it. Maybe in this alternative world we would look through a collection of stories about what candidates propose and choose those we think are most likely to be successful, kind of like we, umm, hire anybody else.

I think we can build this world together. It isn’t going to happen overnight but it can happen in time to make a difference in next year’s elections. Here’s what we all need to do…in 30 minutes or less, once per week. Let’s find and share News We Can Use.

A couple of other things as I wrap up on a Monday afternoon. You may have noticed that it’s been a few weeks since I last published an episode of 435 Voices. If the podcast has been interesting to you, and I hope it has, never fear – it will be back and better than ever looking at a whole new set of districts the first week of December. In full transparency, finding guests has been very time consuming and I am hopeful that the News We Can Use activity outlined in the previous paragraph will help all of you help me become faster at finding the journalists I should be following up with in your district.

To that end, please help spread the word on 435 Voices and Project to Find America. I restarted this journey more than four months ago and have talked with a lot of people about what I’m trying to do here. Aside from one guy who doesn’t think I’m doing my part to get Donald Trump impeached (I’m still not clear what my role is supposed to be) I’ve not heard from anyone who doesn’t see merit in what I’m advocating for…progress. But there still aren’t many new subscribers and virtually no comments. Maybe that’s because you don’t know your role either. So here it is, If you think this is worthwhile, please share this page with three other people today and ask them to get involved in helping to reframe the way we talk about politics and vote next year…to focus on what the candidates are actually proposing to do.

 

News We Can Use

Yes – reading or listening to the news can be a pretty depressing activity these days but it doesn’t have to be that way, there are a lot of really good journalists out there doing their best to help us understand the choices we will have at the ballot box next year. If we could all spend just 30 minutes per week going through these steps and documenting the useful news we find we can actually build a better news database. Here’s how:

 Find your District. This lookup tool at Govtrack makes it a snap to find your district and current representative. Jot it down and you won’t have to repeat this step each week.

 

twofingerssm Find out who is running in the primary and general election. Ballotopedia makes this easy. Click on the link then locate your state from the list at right and then open your district page to find candidates running from both parties. Note – you will find both the primary date and deadline to file at the top left of this page so you can check back periodically until the filing deadline to see if new candidates have announced. Once all the candidates have filed you can skip this step too.

three fingers sm    Open up your favorite news search engine and see what you can find. Both Google News and Duck Duck Go News can be useful for this and it might be instructive to see the different results you might get. I’m going to suggest four simple searches to begin and then offer a few general tips.

  1. Basic name search. Paste in the incumbent’s name in the search box and let er rip. Note – if your representative has a common name putting quotes around the name may help refine the results. You can also add the word congress to limit results if necessary
  2. Now do the same thing with each challenger’s name 
  3. At this point, depending on your district, you might have a bunch of policy-based articles. But if they don’t appear to be specific try to find a story that compares the candidates by putting both names in quotes in the search box
  4.  If articles seem to be short on policy try adding any of the following along with each candidate’s name: proposes, proposed, sponsored, suggests, outlined.

fourfingerssm.jpgTake 2-3 of the best articles you can find and enter them in our Better database so we can all see approaches being covered in other parts of the country that we might want to ask our own candidates about closer to home.

Tips:

 – I promised you could do this in 30 minutes or less but you have to help. Stories about policy are hard enough to find, if it doesn’t look like it is about a proposed policy it probably isn’t. Take it from someone who’s been doing this a long time, If you’re not careful you can spend a whole afternoon doing this and thus, will probably not ever do it again.

 – Resist the temptation to read news about other stuff, including national politics. Your favorite cable news channel has got that covered for you, this is about something else. 

 – If you find that a particular word associated with a candidate you are searching is throwing off the results you can exclude a word in either of the search engines above, I will show an example in the video walkthrough soon.

 – If you want to go all Boolean – you can. Try adding the candidate’s name in quotes, a space and then AND (proposes OR proposed OR sponsored OR outlined OR suggests). Add congress, if necessary, to limit the results if there are still rogue returns.

 – Save your searches. Either of these search engines will allow you to save your results so it’s easy to go back and see what’s new next week.

Last but not least, in fact most. We can’t build this unless a lot of us do it. At the end of every week, please pass this page on to two more people (preferably people that live in a different town) and ask them to do this too. Together, we will find and elect better.

 

 

Looking for Better

Let’s face it, you probably already know how you plan to vote next November. Aside from which two candidates are running for President, a choice most will make based on the party you identify with or the person you don’t want to have win, you could almost fill out the rest of the ballot today – a year before the 2020 election. Ask yourself, deep in your heart, if this isn’t true.

There is no judgment here. All of the evidence suggests that not only is this true but most of us are complicit in this reality. But isn’t it more than a little unsettling since we tell ourselves we live in a representative democracy?

Below is the latest summary from a site called Cook Political Report, which is widely viewed as an accurate and unbiased source of insight on American politics. It shows that only about 21 percent of the 2020 races in the House of Representatives are listed as anything other than “solid seats” for one party or the other. That is, we already have a very good sense of how 79 percent of House races are going to go next fall.

Cook Political Report 11/19

The Senate is slightly more competitive, but even incorporating the 35 Senate seats that will be filled in the next year, about three quarters of the races for Congress are already likely decided with the vast majority of those going to incumbents. The irony of this is that recent approval surveys of Congress suggest that about 25 percent (actually a slight increase) of Americans think Congress is doing a good job. So – about three quarters of the races are already decided and about three quarters of us think Congress is doing a bad job….weird right?

I came across a Vox article that is now four years old as I was going through the news the other day and I think it explains the problem here. It is entitled Confessions of a Congressman (you can see why it enticed me..wonkiness and voyeurism all in one package!) and it was penned by a member of Congress, though since we don’t find out who wrote it I have no idea if they are still a member. However, all “9 secrets from the inside” seem even more prevalent and problematic today than they did when it was first written. There aren’t a lot of bright spots to find in the article but it ends this way…”

“Get over your nostalgia: Congress has never been more than a sausage factory. The point here isn’t to make us something we’re not. The point is to get us to make sausage again. But for that to happen, the people have to rise up and demand better. “

After four months of these posts, it’s probably pretty obvious that I agree with the three primary points made in the article. Congress is broken, it is vital that we fix it now and it has to be us that makes that happen. I hope you agree too but if not here’s another Vox article that makes a pretty persuasive case on the first two points. Fair warning – it’s Craibian in length.

But the congressman who wrote the article said “the people will have to rise up and demand better” not “Bill Craib needs to blog more and you poor suckers have to read it.” If we are going to change the way Congress works then many, if not most of us, will need to work together to make it happen. So what does better look like and what can we do to bring it about?

The concept of better in this case is simple, it is members of Congress actually proposing something and working together to solve problems. That is obviously difficult while there are impeachment hearings taking place, but even while that process is playing out and certainly afterward, Congress is going to have to function properly in order to address some serious issues facing our country.

Better looks like this story about how our local congressman in Vermont thinks rural areas could address a serious shortage of nurses. These shortages are acute today in both red and blue states, there is progress to be had. It isn’t a salacious or gripping headline, it isn’t even about a big policy shift. Importantly, there is no guarantee that the approach being proposed would have the desired impact. But it does represent an idea that a few people have about a way that Congress could act to improve the lives of citizens. If the news we read and listen to every day had more stories like this, that would be better.

How do we bring that about? Tomorrow in this space I will propose three steps all of us could take in less than a half hour per week to move toward a better, more functional, Congress.