Partisanship is good. Really. Where would we be without it? Partisanship has a critical place in the proper operation of American government. Our democracy depends on a majority of citizens, or a majority of our representatives, arriving at a shared solution to a problem. This has been the basis of our success as a nation since we broke away from the British monarchy. We expect the party with the majority to advance its preferred solutions to our problems. We expect the party in the minority to work to improve the solutions offered by the majority, or offer superior solutions so that the electorate will raise them to the majority in the next election.
So, why does partisanship also seem to be the root cause of government dysfunction and division among us? The answer may be revealed in the definition of “partisan”. A partisan “is a strong supporter of a party, cause, or a person.” In the past few decades of extreme political discord and divide, the problems can be traced to how partisanship has been manifest. Recent partisan focus has been almost exclusively on party and person (politician), not on “cause”. Issues – causes – have taken a backseat to the interests of party and politicians. The distinction is subtle. But, this observation may also identify a path out of our chaotic partisan entanglement.
To break out of our current rut of liberal/conservative division and endless personal political attacks we need to be “issue partisans”. Issues don’t get offended by personal attacks. Issues can’t take sides. Issues just need solutions. So, if we drop our allegiance to the Democrats versus Republicans, or Donald versus Hillary, then perhaps we can get back to being the democracy to which we aspire. Stop giving your loyalty to parties or politicians who haven’t earned it. Instead, lend your support to people or organizations who are trying to solve the problems that are important to you at the local, state, and federal level. We all have “special interests”. Our government is more effective when we identify and support the special interests that matter to each of us. Issue coalitions can be temporary and independent of ideological dogma. There are times when “Prius-driving-bleeding-heart-tofu-eaters” and “gun-toting-right-wing-nutjobs” can, and should, come together for the good of the country. When we pursue solutions with as much passion as we cheer for politicians, we will see meaningful and beneficial changes to how government works for us. American democracy is not about whether Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or John Kasich is elected to the presidency. It is about finding effective solutions for the majority of us; that do no harm to those of us in the minority.
It is easy to become apathetic or disheartened by politics and government. Inertia is on the side of voyeurism and mindless coverage of the “horse race” and meaningless bickering between parties. Look at news outlets like CNN and Fox. There is little to no content in their productions. They parade groups of people -- who are legitimate subject matter experts -- in front of the camera who understand that their value to the network is to pander to the liberal/conservative divide. We don't get to hear much about their expert knowledge or opinions about substantive solutions. They are called upon to engage in highbrow bickering. The louder and more contentious the argument, the better the ratings. Imagine if we could harness those news resources and those experts with as much passion to solving problems. We can. We can if each of us commits to ignoring the partisan circus.
Issue Partisanship is the formation of a temporary majority coalition in order to advance a solution to a political problem. Simply stated, it is how our representative democracy has worked in the past when it has been most effective. We rely upon our legislative representatives to routinely cross the aisle and work together to create workable solutions for all of us. A loose synonym for Issue Partisanship is “bipartisanship”. What most people are asking for when they want bipartisanship is an ad hoc majority to advance a solution to a problem. We understand that is not reasonable to expect people to abandon their political positions, philosophies, or passions on all matters. Bipartisanship is a temporary condition to advance a solution. Bipartisanship can be achieved to arrive at solutions to particular problems. However, bipartisanship is not feasible as an equilibrium objective of our representative democracy. The answer is Issue Partisanship.
Representative democracy has not worked well recently because our democratic institutions have not kept pace with societal challenges and unanswered questions about how we should govern ourselves in world that is rapidly changing. American democracy needs a reboot built on the foundation of Issue Partisanship. Temporary majority coalitions have the power to break political gridlock and address far more issues than government has been able to address given our manufactured polar antipathy toward one another. Issue Partisanship will help restore faith in government. Most important, Issue Partisanship will efficiently advance the best solutions to our biggest and most pressing societal problems.
Although it is the best tool to halt the downward spiral of our democratic institutions, there are several problems with Issue Partisanship. The most significant of which is citizen engagement. Issue and policy debates are not very sexy. Issues such as corporate tax inversions, international trade pacts, and health insurance coverage are complex and require more than tweets and social media emojis to form political consensus. Democracy thrives when citizens are engaged in the governing process and knowledgeable about alternative solutions to a problem. Another problem with Issue Partisanship is the overwhelming number of important political issues government grapples with at the local, state, and national level. It is nearly impossible for an individual to be well informed on hundreds – or thousands – of political issues being debated at any time throughout the nation. It is important that there be an efficient means of identifying and organizing the thousands of political issues that confront us at all levels of government. The remaining problem with Issue Partisanship is how to best communicate the priorities and preferences of citizens on the thousands of political issues that are addressed by our political representatives. We should acknowledge the fact that most government decisions are made without direct involvement or prior consultation with the public. But, we should also acknowledge that the source of much of our distrust of government is precisely because such decisions are made without direct involvement or prior consultation with the public. Individual legislators are constrained in the same way that we are with regard to the volume and complexity of important political issues. We need a new paradigm and better tools to govern political discourse between governors and the governed.
Votesphere was created to be the new paradigm and tool we need to advance the Issue Partisanship movement and break the cycle of political gridlock and polarization. It begins with eliminating the fiction that most of us are primarily liberal or conservative. We are not. When subjected to scrutiny, many of us are not consistently moderate, liberal, or conservative across the issue spectrum. We are complex. We hold diverse views based on our experience, knowledge, circumstances, abilities, and challenges. The simple labels may be useful for elections, but they have limited utility when it comes to crafting effective solutions to complex problems. The Votesphere paradigm eliminates the liberal/conservative dichotomy, and helps each of us map our political priorities and preferences. The next article will address how to harness Votesphere and other tools to advance Issue Partisanship and break through political gridlock.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
My name is Jeffrey Szorik. I am an average citizen with a lifelong interest in legislative politics. Like you, I would prefer our political representatives focus on the priorities & preferences of the majority of the electorate they are entrusted to represent. Restoring confidence in our political system depends on it. Join me, as together we explore how to restore 'government by the people and for the people.'