The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why we no longer count on politics to solve America’s problems

The U.S. Capitol on March 21, 2018.
The U.S. Capitol on March 21, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Charles Koch, board chairman and chief executive of Koch Industries, is the founder of the philanthropic community Stand Together, where Brian Hooks is chairman and chief executive.

The political season is upon us, and candidates are working hard to differentiate themselves. Yet politicians from both major parties largely agree on two key points. 

The first is long overdue: There is broad agreement that, despite unprecedented progress in many areas of the country, too many people are being left behind. Look no further than to what Angus Deaton, a Nobel laureate in economics, calls “deaths of despair”: rising addiction, alienation, suicide. America is fast becoming a two-tiered society, with some communities doing very well and others faring far worse.

The second point of politicians’ agreement is deeply worrisome: Republicans and Democrats generally want to solve this crisis by relying on top-down solutions — grand plans done to people rather than inclusive projects done by people. Though the options offered by the two parties often take divergent paths, many end up in the same place. Socialism, protectionism, nationalism, populism — ideas increasingly advocated on both the left and right rest on the troubling assumption that the stroke of a politician’s pen can turn the country around.

History knows better. The tools of politics are limited, and the nation’s overemphasis on what politics can accomplish is, in part, responsible for the polarization that’s making it harder to get anything done. Americans are asking too much of politics.

We say this as the founder and the leader of an organization that has done its part to test the proposition that politics can cure what ails us. For several years, we supported efforts in partisan politics with the goal of moving the United States forward. The results fell far short of what we considered acceptable. Worse, partisan efforts on both sides have made it harder to come together as a country. That’s why we’ve dramatically changed how we engage in the political process, having asked the question “What’s possible through partisanship?”

The answer: not much.

To be sure, public policy has a vital role to play in addressing the challenges the United States faces. That is why we have significantly increased our efforts to build coalitions based on policy partnerships, not partisanship. Far from walking away from policy, we’re doubling down on what works. The historic criminal-justice reform enacted in December — passed in the Senate by a vote of 87 to 12 — is the blueprint for this approach. The First Step Act brought some fairness back to the justice system and will help thousands of Americans rejoin society and rebuild their lives.

Yet this accomplishment also illustrates why politics alone will not suffice. Those leaving prison also need businesses willing to hire them, education that can teach them the values and skills they need to succeed, and communities that are prepared to welcome them back and help them contribute. To ensure that these things happen, people across the country must become engaged well beyond politics and public policy.

The same is true of virtually every other issue the United States faces, including alleviating poverty, fixing the K-12 education system and improving health care. They all require bold policy action, but they also need much more than that. 

Rather than relying on top-down ideas, these challenges require a bottom-up approach: empowering people of all walks of life to help find and enact solutions. Many of the most innovative and effective initiatives are driven by people who have overcome the problem they’re addressing — people who are dedicating their lives to helping others do the same. These efforts can unite people from diverse backgrounds, and they deserve more attention and support.

What can help struggling communities succeed? We’ve learned a lot about the answer from Antong Lucky, the founder of a Dallas gang who turned his life around in prison and is now helping save others from repeating his mistakes, through the organization Urban Specialists . We’ve also seen what’s possible from the founder of Café Momentum, a Dallas restaurant that hires young people with criminal records, helping them unlock their potential.

How do we tackle the crisis of drug addiction? Talk to Scott Strode, who struggled with substance use disorder but beat his addiction through physical fitness and peer-to-peer support and then founded a group called the Phoenix to help others do the same — a group that’s twice as effective as some of the best clinical programs.

And how can we improve upon health-care costs and access? It will almost certainly come through innovations such as telemedicine — a still-young technology that has already been proved to lower some costs by as much as 90 percent — rather than any version of Medicare-for-all.

These examples are a tiny fraction of the transformative work happening across the United States, far from the political brawls. When it comes to fixing the country’s biggest problems, there is no quick fix — no single solution from on high. Rather, there are countless solutions that depend on empowering people across the country to do their part. Politicians can help by passing policies that break down the barriers that hold people back. That’s critical, but there is so much more that we need to do, and can do, together.

Read more:

Matthew Charles: I was released under the First Step Act. Here’s what Congress should do next.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: For criminal justice reform, the First Step Act is just the start

Lynn S. Adelman: The tough-on-crime law Democrats are overlooking

Catherine Rampell: A question missing from the health-care debate: Will doctors make less money?

David Von Drehle: We shouldn’t idolize wealth. But we shouldn’t demonize it either.