I was recently posed a simple question: Why is good governance no longer good politics?
FixUS, a bipartisan group working to reduce division, distrust and dysfunction threatening our democracy, asked this same question of many other elected and appointed government officials, together representing over a thousand years of public service. It compiled their answers in a new report.
The question and report got me thinking. It would seem axiomatic that in a thriving democracy, good governance — that is, government that reflects the will of the people — would be good politics. While the end of any political process leaves winners and losers, a government of the people earns its legitimacy through an inclusive process that leaves both sides feeling heard, respected and willing to engage with each other again when the next issue arises.
The fact that I’d been a member of the Democratic National Committee didn’t deter President George H.W. Bush from appointing me to his Council on Environmental Quality, a group of environmental, business and political leaders focused on environmental security. As White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, it wasn’t unusual for me to be tasked with bringing in experts from multiple fields to advise the president, regardless of their political affiliation. President Clinton valued a wide array of opinions, and it was a given in his White House that the art of governing meant seeking out diverse views, consensus and often compromise.
But even during my time in the White House, it was clear that polarization was on the rise. And in the years since, we’ve seen its damaging effects, in increasingly acrimonious national political campaigns, congressional stalemates that thwart legislative progress and a bias toward shaking fists over shaking hands.
The erosion of political comity was on display for the entire world on Jan. 6, when a mob invaded the Capitol in a bid to overturn the results of a free and fair election. Not since the British burned Washington in the War of 1812 had our institutions of government suffered so direct an assault. The events of Jan. 6 weren’t simply an attack on a building, but an attack on democracy itself.
At the same time, we have seen a number of peaceful protests that have evolved into riots and destruction of private property, many times adversely impacting small-business owners, ignoring the rule of law and respect for others properties. These types of incidents weaken our democracy as well.
What led us to this point? Over the past few decades, an alternative political playbook has emerged. The new playbook short-circuits the role of consensus building in American politics and replaces it with partisanship, power politics and, at times, outright hostility toward the opposition. In retrospect, we’ve seen the building blocks of this new brand of politics fall into place, piece by piece, over the last few decades.
Gerrymandering, once frowned upon, created congressional districts that are little more than party strongholds. With the winner of the dominant party’s primary destined to win the general election, candidates have little incentive to reach out beyond their political base to broaden their appeal.
At the same time, we’ve seen the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of our participatory democracy, eroded by the courts and by state-level voting restrictions. After years of talk, campaign finance reforms meant to reduce the influence of money in politics still await enactment. All the while, both Republican and Democratic candidates continue to take full advantage of the unprecedented and virtually unrestricted flow of cash pouring into their campaigns.
While the political institutions supporting our democracy were being undermined, America’s free press — a vital check on government overreach and corruption — was being demonized. Simultaneously, the splintering of the national conversation, enabled by cable television and social media, made it easier for Americans to retreat into echo chambers of their own choosing. Long gone are the days when families nationwide gathered each evening to hear Walter Cronkite tell us, “That’s the way it is.” Now, we can cherry-pick the news we receive, without ever having to be exposed to different views.
At the national level, the impact on our country has been deeply disheartening. In a polarized climate, elected leaders may feel that cultivating common ground is a risk they can’t afford. Yet retreating to opposing camps helps no one. For our democracy to be revitalized, it must be reformed: by norm, by law and by leaders willing to put the common good ahead of partisan gain.
President Joe Biden has called for unity. But that alone won’t be enough. Our leaders need to be incentivized to do the right thing. And that’s where we the people come in.
A poll by Ipsos and FixUS last year revealed that while Americans remain divided and mistrustful at the national level, we largely share the same fundamental hopes and values for ourselves, our families and our communities. This implies that political reform needs to begin at the grassroots, and that’s where much of the action is today.
In towns, cities and states across the country, bipartisan groups are rallying around commonsense reforms to reinvigorate our democracy. I hope you’ll find one in your area and get active. If good governance is to become good politics again, we the people are going to have to lead the way.
Mack McLarty is the chairman of McLarty Associates and served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1994.