COMMENTARY: We all know that politics in America is broken. Everything connected to our political process has degenerated into a pitched battle. No matter where we look, we can see a different front of this battle.
The very existence of many media outlets is for commentary on this battle. From our politicians we hear a thousand different versions of “us vs. them.” And most disconcerting of all, in our broader culture we have reduced the discourse to some form of 0 and 1. Rich vs. Poor. Black vs. White. Church vs. State. Corporation vs. Union.
The boundaries our U.S. congressional districts are nothing less than the physical demarcation of these battle lines.
Why? Why have we reduced our political discourse into intransigeant warfare? Deep down, I think it is because most of America is scared. The geographical boundaries of our nation are not the barriers they once were. Terrorism, global trade, off-shoring, the internet, climate change, immigration, population growth — these are real threats to the livelihood of the majority of Americans, and each of us see these threats from our own personal perspective.
At the same time, these global forces are collectively an existential threat to America’s place in the world — each of us sees this as well. The world is changing faster than we, either individually or collectively, can adapt. At a visceral level our instincts tell us to pull back. To pull back from the world. To pull back from each other.
Our basic instincts entice us to find comfort in “knowing” that we are correct while, at the exact same moment, completely discounting the person sitting next to us who is equally scared and equally sure in their own thinking, which might be exactly the opposite of ours. Our current warfare-based politics exploit these fears, with all sides suggesting that the world is a dangerous place, it is us against them, and to say, “come with us, we’ll protect you.”
Our fears and trepidation of living in a fast-moving, globally-connected world are well founded, but our instinctual response to self-segregate into warring factions is misguided and destructive.
The argument here is not for nonpartisan politics or even less partisan politics, but rather for the development of a political culture that, at its core, is built around the notion of substantive engagement. Engagement across cultural, ideological, community and socio-economic boundaries. Engagement politics acknowledges the different values brought to the table by different constituents. At the same time, engagement politics acts to forge consensus on the evidence, the facts and the truths as we know them, on any and all issues.
Engagement politics is the arduous process of really seeing an issue through someone else’s eyes. Engagement politics is an acknowledgement that the casualties from the status-quo, pitched battle are just too high and inflicted disproportionally on the American public rather than its practitioners.
Many might say that “engagement politics” is how politics is meant to be practiced and, in the not-so-distant past, how it was practiced. Well, maybe. If so, that only makes the current state of affairs more unacceptable.
Engagement politics is not a euphemism for center politics. Center politics is just a place on a reductionist definition of the political spectrum. Center politics has no more likelihood of finding the correct path forward than the “left” or “right.” Yes, to the extent that center politics infers true consensus and community politics, there is value in the center. But, negotiating at an ill-conceived center that, in reality, only represents “not far left” and “not far right” is foolish and futile. Practicing politics at the center can be just as partisan and ineffective as the politics we are practicing today.
How do we realize engagement politics? My guess is that it won’t be quick or easy. We have been weaponizing the battlefield of partisan politics at an exponential rate for three decades now. The current landscape is too entrenched, too incentivized and too armed for the factions from any side to see any reason to change. But here are three first steps toward de-escalation that anyone of us can adopt:
- Make a nonpartisan publication your primary information source. Support that publication with dollars, either a subscription or a contribution. At the same time, abandon the red-meat “information” sources. These are the equivalent of junk food — we might feel good while eating it, but it does not have the nutritional value required to support the growth we need.
- Seek out reputable news sources, columnists, op-eds, friends and family members that represent a diversity of views. Engage in their perspective. Understand their values. A willingness to understand an alternative position is not a sign of weakness. In fact, we once referred to it as a sign of maturity.
- Engage with your local representatives: school boards, city councilors, state representatives or senators. Just pick one. Meet with them. Ask them to speak about issues that are important to them, in their words, from their perspective, built from their values. Then ask them hard questions in a civil manner. This is about engagement and understanding, not persuasion and conflict.
After many years of practicing these seemingly obvious and easy first steps in engagement politics, we might have the courage and trust to lay down our weapons and to think about the system-level reforms that are needed to get our democracy working again.
Todd Ringler is an aspiring policy wonk and recovering partisan living in Santa Fe. For more see toddringler.me.