This piece was co-authored by Rick Shapiro, Senior Fellow at Democracy Fund and former executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation.
The horrible and indiscriminate attack on a group of House Republican members of Congress at their early morning baseball practice for a charity baseball game may prove to be a watershed moment in our country: the day Democrats and Republicans realized they had to change the direction of American politics to take our democracy off the downward spiral it was on.
The stark anger behind this attack seems to have driven home the point to many members of Congress that our nation’s politics is not only broken, but it is dangerous — to members of Congress and to the citizens they represent.
It has been encouraging to hear a growing number of members publicly call for their colleagues on both sides of the aisle to come together to reverse current norms of incivility and model more constructive democratic behavior for the nation. Unfortunately, changing congressional behavior, while critical to any formula for lasting change, will not be sufficient for restoring the health and vitality to our democracy.
While many Americans view the behavior of members of Congress as both the problem and solution to what impedes our government, this perspective is short-sighted. It fails to take into account how mistrustful rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans are of each other as well as the institutions of government themselves and the role both play in government dysfunction.
A recent New York Times article aptly titled, “How We Became Bitter Political Enemies,” powerfully outlines the role hostility and mistrust between Democrats and Republicans plays in our nation’s politics. Using nationwide survey data from a range of pollsters, the Times story reveals that Americans today believe the “opposing party is not just misguided but dangerous.”
More specifically, “In 2016, Pew reported that 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats felt that the other party’s policies posed a threat to the nation.” Democrats and Republicans tended to view people who supported the other party as “exceptionally immoral, dishonest and lazy.” And about a third of the members of each party viewed members of the opposing party as “less intelligent” than average Americans.
In short, Democrats and Republicans — in unprecedented numbers — hold each other in contempt. This problem will not go away solely as a result of increasing bipartisan dinners and civility training. To truly address what ails our democracy, we must find a way for Democrats, Republicans and Independents to begin talking with — and listening to — each other again about the policy challenges facing the country and the factors that promote partisan mistrust, and rebuild their trust in their fellow Americans.
Members of Congress are well-situated to begin the efforts to reduce the rancorous divide and restore the public’s trust and confidence in their neighbors. They can fill this void by creating and convening new types of policy forums in their states and districts that encourage constituents with conflicting views to come together and discuss their differing views, enhance their understanding of the issues and explore options to find common ground. While successful models need to be piloted, tested and fine-tuned, here is some general guidance offices can use to get started.
At traditional town hall meetings, members of Congress are the primary speakers and center of attention. At these sessions, the focus should be on generating constructive dialogue amongst constituents on specific public policy questions. Given the public’s cynical view of politicians and their motives for meeting with constituents, taking on new roles like “convener,” “facilitator,” and “listener” rather than “messenger” would help alter this perception.
Participants in these sessions should share their candid views but cannot engage in derisive rhetoric that seeks to demean or show contempt for other points of view, nor should they interrupt or talk over other speakers. The goal should be conversation and problem solving, not debate and theatrics.
These politically charged conversations should be moderated by capable facilitators to minimize discord and promote effective communications. Some members could do this job well without training. Others would benefit from training or working alongside a skilled facilitator. Still others would do best to serve as the convener who opens and closes the sessions but does not participate in the discussion.
Members will ask, “Why would I want to take on responsibility for convening a discussion that could turn ugly and generate public conflict?”
Here are some answers. First, members want to be seen by their constituents as leaders who are trying to heal the nation and repair our democracy, not politicians who ignore serious problems or their constituents. Second, creating ongoing policy forums where the focus is on promoting discourse and trust amongst fellow constituents rather than evaluating the views of politicians will make members less likely to become a target of public anger.
Third, by convening these sessions, members will be teaching critical communications skills to tens of thousands of constituents across the country — active listening, asking questions, identifying areas of shared interest, managing conflict and engaging in joint problem solving. These skills are critical for effective participation in our democracy, but have been undermined by the growth of online communications and the decline of face-to-face communication.
Members who facilitate these discussions will also benefit from practicing communication skills that will enhance their ability to facilitate legislative agreements in Congress — active listening, asking clarifying questions, synthesizing the comments of others, modeling dispassionate discourse, intervening in debate to minimize discord and keeping the conversation on track.
Most importantly, if member offices across the country regularly convened these sessions, they would generate an ongoing, nationwide dialogue on public policy that could go a long way towards reducing partisan hostility and restoring trust in their fellow citizens and our democratic institutions. If members of Congress fail to address the rapidly growing partisan divide, the ability of democratic institutions to make wise decisions that reflect the best interests and thinking “of the people” will continue to decline.