By ANNA MEIER
With a dismal record of passing legislation, perpetuated by hyper-partisan gridlock, the 112th Congress has been called the “worst Congress ever.” Some prefer to stop at “dysfunctional,” but whichever nickname you choose, there’s something seriously off about Congress these days. Bills are proposed with the goal of advancing partisan interests, and not necessarily the public’s. Debates have deginerated into bitter partisan bickering, not thoughtful consideration of public policy.
In such an environment, it’s natural to search for someone to blame. But according to former Congressman Mickey Edwards, who spent many years as a member of the Republican leadership, the problem in Congress isn’t its members—it’s the system itself.
Fortunately, it’s not beyond repair. In his new book, The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Democrats and Republicans into Americans, Edwards, who served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Oklahoma's 5th Congressional District, lays out the features of the American political order that make it easy for parties to seek power over the public interest.
In order to combat cronyism and get Congress back on track, he proposes sweeping changes to our political system, from ending party-controlled primaries to eliminating corporate donations to candidates. We caught up with Edwards to talk about provoking accountability, moving beyond labels, and encouraging a more effective Congress.
POGO: You've said that partisanship, not polarization, is to blame for dysfunction in and frustration with government today. Can you explain the difference?
Mickey Edwards: Polarization is a natural part of the democratic process; there are more than 300 million of us and a lot of different viewpoints, some of them very strongly held. A democracy depends on a vigorous exchange between those alternative visions. Some of the greatest advances in our history have come not from the political center but from the “poles,” including the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, both of which were radical reversals of long-held practices and beliefs.
Partisanship, on the other hand, is the taking of political positions that seem advantageous to one’s political club. Today, neither Democrats nor Republicans are open to proposals—no matter what their merits—that emanate from a member of the other party. The democratic process requires a willingness to engage honestly in an exchange of views, with an openness to considering an opponent’s perspective; partisanship cuts off that exchange and proceeds solely from a cold political calculus that depends on hurting the other side in order to gain an advantage in the next election. The two terms—polarization and partisanship—are often confused, but they are very different.