The Senate’s overwhelming and bipartisan vote in support of a new infrastructure bill has shown our country what our politics could — and should — look like.
President Joe Biden was right to focus on reaching a bipartisan deal on a major piece of legislation. We need more of this spirit when it comes to tackling our nation’s biggest issues.
However, as the debate lingers on and other issues arise, I fear retrenchment back into partisan camps. We cannot allow that for the sake of our democracy.
As the mayor of the ninth-largest city in the United States, I believe in the bipartisan framework and related initiatives pushed by the president. Investing in our infrastructure and in opportunities for our people would be good for Dallas, good for business, good for families and good for our country. The agreement is not everything the president wanted, but we need to act now on broadband expansion, public transportation improvements and bridge repairs. We also need to boost education so we can strengthen our workforce and compete as a country in a fast-changing world. And we need investment in our families, including maternal health, child care and paid family leave policies. To me, this is no partisan wish list; it’s a collection of essentials for our future.
But the debate in Washington is about far more than the cost of rebuilding our country’s crumbling infrastructure. It is about rebuilding our nation’s political discourse.
About two and a half years ago, I decided to run for mayor after nearly a decade in the Texas House of Representatives. I ran because I wanted to be more than just a long-serving Democratic legislator; I was at heart still a kid who grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Oak Cliff and West Dallas and believed I could help provide safety, more opportunities and stronger neighborhoods for the people of my hometown.
But my growing disdain for partisan politics certainly made leaving Austin for good an easier decision. On matters of complicated and nuanced policy, increasingly, it seems our elected leaders must be fully in or fully out — the details or the merits be damned.
Serving as mayor has proved to be a reprieve from the daily political shenanigans and hollow rhetoric meant to gin up political bases. There is no truly Democratic or Republican way to fix potholes, answer 911 calls and reduce crime. At the local level, data, good policymaking and consensus still have a chance to win the day, and you can see that reflected in our unanimous votes on major policy initiatives over the last two years. There is a reason mayors have a reputation for getting things done; when it comes down to it, local governments are the last line of defense for people, and our residents simply expect action without excuses.
Still, it’s clear there is no full escape from the corrosive political tenor of the day. I have been chastised by Democrats for daring to meet with our state’s duly elected Republican officials about where we can find common ground. And I have heard some Republicans admonish me over my push for our residents to wear masks and get vaccinated to reduce the spread of a deadly and highly contagious virus.
Such factional thinking has always been part of our country, and nasty and personal politics were part of the game during the early years of the republic too. But right now, partisanship has become, for many, a lifestyle — a toxic one, at that — reinforced by the continuous scroll of social media and the nonstop talking heads on cable news.
Both parties these days have a proclivity to only demand bipartisanship from the other — and then castigate their opponents for failing to win their support, which they had never planned to provide anyway. Reaching across the aisle is met too often with a slap of the hand. This “bipartisanship for thee, but not for me” attitude will kill the country’s growth and progress.
To paraphrase the president, this uncivil war will only serve to show the world that America is no longer serious about competing and winning the future.
We must fight back. We can do so not by fighting each other but by admitting that we don’t have all the answers. Humility is the only way forward, and we have to reward politicians who step outside their comfort zones to advance good policy. We must demand that members of our own political parties give a little and insist that they work together because it is in the country’s best interests. Those who feel like they’re caught in the middle cannot be passive anymore. Politicians do listen to their constituents if they take the time to speak up. We’re going to have to start being radical about being reasonable.
There will be plenty of time for political brouhahas on other issues. But on issues such as making our families and our country more competitive in a changing world, Republicans and Democrats need to tell their elected leaders what we hear our constituents of all political persuasions say to us in Dallas: Make a deal and get it done.
It’s time to show the world that bipartisan agreement in this country is still possible and that America can still find ways to tackle our biggest challenges, not just appease the loudest voices.
Eric Johnson, a Democrat, is the 60th mayor of Dallas. He served in the Texas House of Representatives from 2010 to 2019.