The Unasked Question

You probably didn’t hear it here first. but the message you’ve seen many times on this site over the course of the last several months is now being reported much more widely in the media: American politics are broken and are diseased not by a difference of ideas but by a schism in identity.

Here is US News and World Report on States of Hate from last week.

Last month, NPR did a very detailed story looking at many of the same sources we covered in this Prezi and the pilot of 435 Voices.

and here’s a more unlikely source – The Financial Times tells us how Partisanship sates Americans’ lust for belonging.

What is in short supply in all of these accounts is what to do about it. In ten months we are going to vote for President. Either Donald Trump or one of several Democrats appears likely to occupy the White House in 2021 and beyond. There seems to be a common hope that a new (or somehow the existing) President can fix all this. But since we are in the midst of the football playoffs I’ll go with a sports analogy here; expecting any of them to be successful with our current Congress is like expecting Patrick Mahomes to go the Super Bowl with the guys from Moe’s Tavern on his offensive line.

You could roll up the best traits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan and still not have a President that could navigate the soul-crushing dysfunction they are likely to meet with in the 117th Congress. But as Reagan himself said (while) “there are no easy answers, there are simple ones.” If we want partisanship out of the halls of Washington we are going to have to vote it out.

And yet…

Take a minute right now and go see if you can find the news articles about candidates that are pledging to work with the other side (whatever that other side is) to actually make policy in the next Congress….I’ll wait right here.

You will recognize these stories because the candidates will be quoted as saying things like, “we are going to try some new things to confront the many challenges Americans face today, we are going to measure how well these solutions are working and then, without assigning blame, we’re going to try new things if they are not working as well as we hope.”

Oh…back so soon?

Instead, what we have, even in the districts where there are competitive primaries, is candidates lining up to campaign on the status quo.

This is a screenshot of a Google News Search using just the last names of the five Republican candidates running to replace Bradley Byrne in the Alabama 1st congressional district. It’s hard to see, but you should be able to replicate the search here. The district is reliably Republican, voting with the GOP candidate every year since the early 1960s so it is likely that one of these five men will be elected (made even more likely by the fact that is almost impossible to find any articles about the three Democrats running for the seat). You can see the results for a search about the Democrats running here.

But it’s pretty tough to find much difference between the five. The few articles suggest they all support the President across the board on national policy. There isn’t much coverage of local issues to go on but in the brief coverage of how to pay for a federal highway bridge, for instance, there doesn’t appear to be much daylight either (they all agree that the federal government should pay for it instead of having a local toll while also agreeing that the feds should continue to lower taxes). It seems pretty safe to say that whichever Republican wins the primary eight weeks from today is likely to win again next fall and go to Washington to do, wait for it…exactly what their predecessor has been doing.

As strange as it sounds, though, the voters along the coast in the Alabama-1st have more choices than many of their fellow residents. Super Tuesday Primaries in all but two of Alabama’s other six districts have been canceled because there is either no challenger at all or just two candidates running against each other, these will both go automatically to the general election in November.

There will be some new faces among the folks headed from Alabama to Washington next January. One representative, Marthy Roby, is retiring, and another, the aforementioned Bradley Byrne, is running for the Senate so there will be at least two new members sworn in to replace them. But unless something changes, that delegation doesn’t seem likely to behave much differently than this one.

But there is still time to ask candidates, in Alabama and elsewhere, one telling question that could make a difference (or better yet encourage your local media to ask it for you)... “If you go (back) to Washington, what are you, personally, going to do to fix this problem?”

435 Voices will be back asking local journalists what they have heard for answers to this question later this month.


So – what of Project to Find America in just the third week in US history when there have been headlines that contained this single word?

What shred of hope is left for an aspiring movement that calls for cooperation and compromise in a week that the two American political parties acted with such forceful unanimity, not behind the country they both represent, but behind the parties themselves? What indeed.

I watched several hours of “debate” on Wednesday. Actually, I mostly listened. I found it distracting to marvel at how Billy Long could remain awake and appear interested after dozens of versions of the same speech.

I listened as members from one side of the aisle told the same story in 90 – second increments; The President broke the law, he represents a “clear and present danger” to our republic, he must be removed.

I listened as members from the other side used the word sham more times than humankind had collectively used it to date. I heard that the President had done nothing wrong, that this was a “witch hunt” perpetrated on an innocent man by a dangerous political party obsessed with reversing the results of the last election and, curiously, “putting Hillary Clinton in the White House.”

I’m not completely detached from reality. I get, sort of, why this was destined to be a vote along party lines – only 5 of 427 representatives voting, four of them Democrats, failed to vote with their party. But while I did not listen to the whole six hours, what I did not hear in any of the debate (and feel confident didn’t happen since I’ve not seen any reporting of it) was a single Democrat say something like this:

“I’m really not sure about the evidence. The report from the judiciary committee says the President committed multiple federal crimes including criminal bribery and wire fraud, I would have liked more time and more evidence to see how the President’s actions line up to those charges. However, I will be voting yes because I will not have this opportunity again and I believe this man should be removed from office.”

What I also did not hear was a single Republican use language like this.

“I will be voting no on both articles of impeachment, I am unconvinced by the evidence contained in the report from the judiciary committee. However, I want to make it clear that I find the President’s actions, actions he freely admits having taken, to use US foreign policy decisions as a means to his own political aspirations to be utterly reprehensible. These actions are not okay and I expect him to refrain from similar activities during the remainder of his time in office.”

Said no one this week, at least in Congress.

These are the headlines from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal digital editions early Thursday.

They are from two widely circulated and respected news sources with distinctly different editorial board viewpoints. If you look closely, though, you will see three themes emerge in both: President Trump was impeached, the vote to do so was almost entirely along party lines and the general public remains bemused and divided about the proceedings. If the public is truly divided, as I’d suggest we might be, even within ourselves, why are members of Congress not similarly vexed? Instead, to hear both sides tell it, there really was no decision to make, the vote was a foregone conclusion – Donald Trump either had to be impeached or it shouldn’t have even been discussed.

This afternoon I was driving to the grocery store with my soon-to-be 12 year old son and, as often happens with this kid, he asked me a question that gave me pause. “I wonder what’s going to happen”, he said, “when we run out of gas.” He didn’t mean, Dad – you forgot to fill up the tank this morning, he meant…when the world…runs out of gas. A half mile later I said, “I think that’s a good question, but I’m more worried about what will happen when we run out of rubber.” 

Elizabeth and I watched a documentary on Amazon Prime earlier this year called This Giant Beast that is the Global Economy. One episode, called simply The Rubber Episode, looked at a disease called Rubber Tree Blight and detailed the disastrous effects it would have on the global economy if the disease spread to the very small part of the planet where nearly all the world’s rubber is produced. In short, according to the program, the global economy would “literally grind to a halt.”

This got Alistair’s attention. He spends hours at a time sketching out future versions of flying machines, the prospect of them having no wheels was dire indeed. “What can we do about it, Dad?”

I explained that the short answer to this question presented in the episode is to increase the biodiversity of the species by researching and developing alternative sources of latex.

“Is that happening,”he asked? “Not as fast as it needs to,” I said.

“Why not,” said Alistair? “Because,” I replied,” it requires governments to invest both the research dollars to develop these new sources and to create the regulations required to allow the new products to get a foothold in the market so that they can sustain themselves.”

“Why don’t they just do that?” “Because they, in our country…is Congress.” That gave us both pause.

Four years ago the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers released a report called Global Megatrends 2015. I had the pleasure as part of my day job to introduce the man who is now US Chairman of PWC, Tim Ryan, as he presented that research at one of the HCI conferences. His 40-minute talk changed the way I think about almost everything and part of the idea behind Project to Find America was certainly born that day. If you want a three-minute summary of most of the same trends, check this out.

We live in a world that will require more adaptability and flexibility than any point in human history. But if the impeachment vote proved anything this week it was this….Our representatives don’t work for us…they work for one of two political parties and those political parties do not agree with nor cooperate with the other because it is their mission and sole purpose to defeat the other in elections.

So when that which is politically expedient is matched up against that which is better in the long term it doesn’t take long to imagine how politicians that answer only to their party are going to vote. What shred of hope indeed.

But that brings me back to where this story started. I don’t have much hope. It’s been a month since the last post, a month in which exactly one article was added to my better database. Part of the gap was due to the fact that I was very busy keeping the lights on. But a good part of it, I will confess, was also due to the fact that I just didn’t know what to say to be encouraging.

But I also realize that this disconnect between Americans and the politicians that represent us is real and getting worse and there is very little coverage of it in the news. So I’m going to spend the next two weeks enjoying the holidays with my friends and my family, I hope you will be doing the same. But when the next post appears in this space (and with it a new series of 435 Voices episodes) we will be 60 days from Super Tuesday. It’s not much time, but it’s enough to help find candidates that are actively acknowledging that they will need to work with the other party to make progress in 2021 and beyond and reacquaint the incumbents running against them with a concept they should have understood all along…America and all its people first….political parties second.

I wish you and yours a joyous and peaceful holiday season and may 2020 be a happy New Year for us all.



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.