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.

Of Radishes and Funnel Cake

Imagine you were walking up to this booth at the county fair.

Funnel Cake Booth

You’ve got one thing in mind…fried goodness. We’ll worry about later…later

And then you saw this on the counter of the booth

Free Radishes!

Who, in their right mind, is going to snack on a radish when fried dough awaits?

Well, as I said in a Facebook comment this week, this is kind of what it feels like to be writing about and advocating for congressional consensus and cooperation in the Age of Impeachment. It often just feels pretty irrelevant.

But then there are signs of hope. Like this story from the New York Times this week about an effort called America in One Room in which organizers invited 526 people from across the country that match the overall demographics of America to talk policy for a weekend. They didn’t necessarily convince each other but they left with a better sense of why others feel differently than they do. That’s progress – and the article is very worth reading if you have some time this weekend.

There’s also this story from NPR about two members of the House Judiciary Committee (front and center in the impeachment process) who, despite being from opposite sides of the aisle, regularly cooperate to try to advance policy and are being recognized for it.

We are getting close to the launch of 435 Voices. If you haven’t listened to the pilot yet – take 12 minutes and try to listen this weekend and subscribe. We will launch with the West Virginia-1st, South Dakota and the Georgia-13th in two weeks.

Happy Friday!

Learning to Argue

I am slowly learning a lesson that most good bloggers seem to have absorbed. It’s a lesson my wife has been pushing me to learn after sorting through every PFA post. “You don’t have to write a novel about everything, Bill,…sometimes someone else has already written it.”

In the pilot version of the 435 Voices podcast I mentioned a simple graphic I had created that summarizes how Project to Find America hopes to help Congress begin to be more effective at making policy. Here it is.

The PFA Change Cycle

If you haven’t listened to the pilot podcast yet, I hope you will. I believe it makes a persuasive case for the logic behind this graphic.

However, even as I slog through the process of trying to find media guests for the first set of 435 Voices episodes, it is worthwhile to acknowledge that maybe I don’t have this model right. Maybe it actually looks like this.

A Competing Version

It is pretty easy to see that we’re not going to get politicians to change their polarized and divisive ways without somehow changing the voters who elect them. In other words, the green circle won’t change until one of the other two do. But maybe voters really can be the catalysts for changing this cycle.

I came across the work of Patricia Roberts Miller last spring as I was working on the Prezi deck I used to relaunch Project to Find America. She is a professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas. Stop right there. Already, you are making a judgment about her based mostly on that one sentence. I’m not now judging you, we all do this, but for reasons that you will see when you click through to her post, it is important to understand that we do.

In the post Demagoguery; Or, the Pleasures of Outrage Professor Roberts-Miller articulates precisely the problem that Project to Find America hopes to address and offers a relatively simple (though certainly not easy) solution…we need to learn to argue better and then look for better sources of information that will aid those arguments. Not surprisingly, coming from a professor of writing, it is an extraordinarily well-written and thought provoking piece, I hope you’ll take a few minutes at lunch or this evening to read it.