Is bipartisanship possible in today’s political climate? That is a question many are asking given the negativity of the 2020 political campaign. Although people report that they are tired of negative advertising, it continues to thrive. To quote Joe Heim, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin—La Crosse, negative advertising survives “because it works”.
It is difficult for elected officials and members of their political party to endure a vicious campaign, and then do an about face and embrace the opposition responsible for it. The result? A cycle of negativity.
Nonetheless, there are actions that can break the cycle. The initial steps toward increased bipartisanship are important...an open mind and a willingness to meet in the middle. Yet this is only a start. Results will be limited unless elected officials actively work to support the needs and interests of their entire constituency, not just the simple majority of supportive voters. This involves engaging with members on the other side of the aisle to better understand their viewpoint and to build trust. Having an open mind is necessary. Ronald Reagan said this about evolving relations with the former Soviet Union: “Trust, but verify.” That process involves both formal and informal engagement and communication.
An example of the formal approach is taking place in Utah. The opposing candidates for governor of the State of Utah have taken a welcome step forward in political advertising. On October 20, Republican Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and law professor Chris Peterson, a Democrat, released joint political ads.
They appear together to call for civility among voters.“We can disagree without hating each other,” Cox says in one of the ads, in which he stands next to Peterson. “We can debate issues without degrading each other’s character,” Peterson said. They conclude that this is the way the American democracy was intended to work.
Engagement and communication can also be done informally. A wonderful example is the friendship between Supreme Court Justices Anthony Scalia (a conservative) and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (a liberal). Their philosophy on law was significantly different, yet their friendship was real.
For elected officials, the need for engagement and communication goes beyond the interaction with their peers. It is important to connect with constituents who have diverse needs and political interests. An example might be hosting a town hall meeting in an area where the political opposition is dominant. Given the partisan political climate, and the passion of many constituents, this may well be an uncomfortable and frustrating experience for an elected official. But in the long run, these kinds of interactions can be instructive and yield results, particularly if people believe there is a sincere interest. From the insight gained, as well as the dialogue with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, the foundation of bipartisan policy development can take hold. This approach is not easy. It involves heavy lifting. Perhaps that is why many elected officials choose to stay on the divisive path. It is an easier way to go and there is plenty of political cover. But this is the path that leads to corrosive and lasting damage to the integrity of the American democracy.
That‘s precisely why it is crucial that we, as citizens, elect ethical leaders who are willing to meet the bipartisanship challenge.
Lee Rasch is executive director of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin. Visit leaderethicswi.org for more information on the group.