If you had a problem, and someone with a thousand years of wisdom and experience offered you guidance, would you listen?
We all know that Washington, D.C., has fallen into disrepair. Despite billions of dollars spent on presidential and congressional campaigns, it is stuck in an endless cycle of hyperpartisanship and legislative paralysis. The fact that nothing ever seems to change has left Americans feeling frustrated and politically homeless. And it’s caused them to lose faith in our democratic institutions.
What happened? How did a country that rose to the occasion so many times throughout its history suddenly become incapable of the most basic aspects of governing?
The short answer is that, quite simply, good governing is no longer good politics. There was a time when public officials were rewarded for the hard work of legislating and forging the necessary relationships with members of the opposite party to solve pressing national issues. Now, that is no longer the case.
For our new report out this month, “Why is Governing No Longer Good Politics: Reflections from a Thousand Years of Public Service,” we surveyed former elected and appointed officials representing nearly 1,000 years of public service spanning the presidencies of John F. Kennedy to Donald Trump. They were asked to respond to two questions: “Why does it seem that good governing is no longer good politics?” and “What has changed and what can we do about it?”
We conducted much of this research prior to the 2020 election, but the findings are as relevant as ever. No one leader or party brought us to this moment alone. The perspectives contained in this report include former members of Congress, ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, White House chiefs of staff and other civil servants. Respondents were equally split between Republicans and Democrats to gather as wide a range of views as possible.
They confirmed our worst fears about the dysfunction of our political system — but they also expressed hope that change is possible.
Specifically, respondents were candid in lamenting how our electoral system contains built-in incentives that prioritize party loyalty over governing, starting with the role of big money in elections and the gerrymandering of districts. The latter is especially noteworthy now, when states are getting ready to redraw their congressional lines as soon as the delayed detailed population figures from last year’s census get finished.
Former officials also emphasized how the rise of toxic media and social media environments have stoked our tribal natures, reinforced our self-imposed echo chambers and shifted the focus from important policy discussions to stories that foment outrage. This has made it tougher for policymakers to agree on a shared set of facts, making it virtually impossible to address the major challenges confronting our society.
There is also the personal obligation all of us have if this cycle of dysfunction is to be broken.
Almost every former official was insistent that for change to occur, we the people must hold our leaders, and one another, accountable. Our representative democracy is dependent on those who show up and make their voices heard. Only by championing leaders who choose to govern, compromise and work with each other can we make governing good politics.
Few moments offer an opportunity for change quite like the start of a new presidency and a new Congress. Even after the pandemic subsides and the economy recovers, this country faces daunting obstacles — the most consequential of which is whether we can heal our political wounds and bridge our divides.
And history shows it doesn’t have to be this way. “In my over 50 years of public life, I have seen Washington at its best and Washington at its worst,” our report quotes Leon Panetta, the former secretary of Defense, White House chief of staff and House Budget Committee chairman. “The good news is that I have seen Washington work.”
These days it’s easy to forget that we’re a nation that survived the pain of Vietnam, sent a man to the moon, emerged from the constitutional crisis of Watergate and achieved the triumph of democracy over communism. None of this was achieved by sheer luck; it required a government, elected officials and a people to work together and govern together.
A millennium worth of public service has come together in starting a conversation about how to make Washington work. The question now is whether we will heed their advice.
Michael V. Murphy is the director of FixUS, the democracy reform advocacy arm of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal policy think tank. Murphy is also chief of staff for that organization, and Benajmin P. Tomchik is deputy chief of staff.