Trent Lott and Tom Daschle were, respectively, Senate Republican leader from 1996 to 2003 and Senate Democratic leader from 1995 to 2005. Each served as Senate majority leader twice during those years. Their book “Crisis Point: Why We Must — and How We Can — Overcome Our Broken Politics in Washington and Across America,” co-authored with Jon Sternfeld, will be published this month.
As we head into a new year and another election cycle, all evidence points toward a disheartening replay of years past. We will see a rearranging of the players, perhaps, but the continuing landscape in Washington is unmistakable. Though Congress recently passed a budget agreement and a highway bill, it seems mainly to have spent the past year spinning its wheels. Our great deliberative bodies continue to be embroiled in an unnecessary standoff with themselves and a poisonous relationship with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. More money than ever is flooding the system. On deck is a batch of candidates merely demonizing the other side in hopes of rallying support by scratching at the basest itches of the electorate. We have never been more divided.
The deterioration has brought our country’s government to such a crisis point that we have decided to join voices to sound an alarm. The United States was launched in grand revolutionary spirit as an experiment, and after 240 years, the experiment continues. Democracy doesn’t work in a vacuum: The system is only as good as its citizenry and the representatives it sends to work its daily machinations in city, state and national governing bodies. In the sense that our system begins with the single voter, it remains revolutionary. But turnout in the 2014 midterms was dismal and, worse, those who did turn out don’t represent a wide and diverse sampling of Americans. Those at the far extremes are continuing to control what’s happening in the center, and our leaders have done little to bridge the gap.
We have a combined 59 years in elected office. We don’t see eye to eye on a range of issues, and, indeed, we understand the particulars of our present moment differently. Nonetheless, our efforts to find common ground while in office were inspired and informed by a set of principles that are inseparable from American democracy. As we look out on today’s contentious political landscape, calling on these principles can help to define our challenge and chart our path.
We offer the following criteria for what we should all expect from our candidates, governments and, ultimately, ourselves, as the 2016 election nears.
● Compromise: Make no mistake — our political system was built by men in vigorous conflict with one another, but there’s a spark that comes from opposing ideas sharing the same space. It’s the purpose of the two chambers of Congress and the party system. We shouldn’t expect some kind of mass delirium to infect Democrats and Republicans that makes them all agree; we wouldn’t want that. Our strength comes from the disagreement, but we need to harness it properly and use it for something beyond the destruction of the other side. Reaching for compromise is no less than the duty of our elected representatives.
Our current officeholders are embracing the conflict and ignoring its purpose. Representative democracy is not winner-take-all. The Constitution was designed as a harmonizing system, balancing the competing interests of all the people toward something that serves everyone. We need to insist that our representatives move beyond the ideological purity that reads compromise as betrayal.
● Chemistry: Government comes down to people interacting. As Senate leaders, we each had a phone on our desk that directly patched us to each other. It created a chemistry that begins at the top and trickles down. But our representatives in Washington no longer know one another as people. Few members of Congress even live in Washington anymore. They no longer share meals or glasses of wine in the Senate dining room, their spouses never meet, their children don’t play together. Between commuting to their home states and the Sisyphean task of raising money, often there simply isn’t time. If our representatives knew one another personally, they might think twice before painting one another with a wide and ugly brush. We need to look for candidates who understand the necessity of getting to know the other side.
● Leadership: Leadership is the ability to sense where the best angels of the public want to go and helping them get there. It’s about governing — not necessarily winning — and finding common ground that leads to action. Our leaders have stalled on the major issues of our time: immigration, cybersecurity, energy policy, tax reform. Leadership takes genuine courage, courage to act on the recognition that the choice between right and left is a false one when it comes to getting things done. We must demand of our leaders that they actually lead.
● Vision: Nothing is more upsetting than seeing political leaders refuse to even attempt to inspire the country as a whole. We have seen more than enough strategy on how to beat the other side, to flip blue states to red or vice versa, or to win over some demographic slice. What we haven’t seen is a vision of where we can all go together, inclusively, as a nation. Whether that ultimate vision is something we entirely agree with — and the likelihood that we’d be in lockstep with one another is low — we still want leaders who communicate something beyond their own or their party’s aspirations. We need to expect them to offer this vision, and for it to be wide enough to embrace us all.
We have enormous faith in the judgment of the American people, but it has become impossible to even know what that is anymore. Our political process is rewarding the extremes, and the political leadership reflects the view of that minority. It has become a race to the edges and a downward spiral. Citizens are too turned off to vote, which only empowers those who demand no compromise — leading to more discontent and less inclination to vote.
Democracy requires active engagement, mindfulness and tolerance. We can’t expect our leaders to do their part if we don’t do ours. We must retake control of our duty as Americans. The only way to turn the spiral around is for the individual American to make a commitment to vote in the coming year. If these resolutions for the New Year are to take root, there is only one way: It is in our hands.