Donald Trump is now president. His unique approach to politics should not distract us from our real problem on the governance front: American politics has turned tribal.
Despite campaign promises to “drain the swamp” and change the ways of Washington, we predict that the next four years will be business as usual in America’s capital. Sure, there will be a flurry of legislative activity this year. Perhaps there will be some unfunded tax cuts or infrastructure spending. The one thing that can still bring Democrats and Republicans together is passing out goodies now that can be paid for by our children.
But real progress will require hard work, genuine compromise, and courage on Capitol Hill — three qualities that both parties seem allergic to. Mitch McConnell has already signaled that he’s willing to go it alone on major legislation — something for which he harshly criticized President Obama. The Democrats, ironically, will likely take a page out of McConnell’s playbook (circa 2014) and filibuster any serious piece of legislation with a Republican imprint.
Both major parties have conditioned their voters to view the other party as an enemy — a literal threat to America. Come the next election, it will be fear of that enemy, not legislative accomplishments, that they will rely on when running for office.
The status quo is not working — a message voters sent clearly in November. We fear the Trump presidency will not address any of our “termites in the basement” type challenges: mounting debt; stagnant middle-class incomes; rising health care, higher education and child care costs; climate change. Solutions to these kinds of problems require the two parties to work together, and the current Republican-Democrat trench warfare makes that unlikely, if not impossible.
We believe the only logical antidote to tribalism is to begin electing representatives who do not wear the gang colors of either side: centrist independents. The problem is systemic; the fix needs to be, too.
Here is a simple test. Can President Trump and Congress work to pass two significant pieces of legislation? The first is empowering Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, which both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supported during the campaign. This should be a straightforward bipartisan effort that makes good on campaign promises and answers the call by many disaffected Americans for Washington to take on special interests like Big Pharma. Taking on the pharmaceutical industry would be proof positive that President Trump and the Congress were serious about draining the swamp.
The second is passing a budget that narrows the long-term debt outlook, as projected by the Congressional Budget Office. This is much harder, as it will require deep spending cuts and entitlement reforms or significant revenue increases. But it has to be done. Our current budget path is unsustainable, and the point of governance is to make hard decisions.
The Republicans will be averse to making those hard budget decisions without Democratic political cover. The Democrats, however, will not sign on to any budget compromise that gives the Trump administration a political win. In other words, more of the same.
If we are wrong, good for America. But if Congress and the White House fail our test — if they cannot pass two substantively defensible policies, one endorsed by both presidential candidates and the other by nearly all serious policy analysts across the political spectrum — then it is time to begin dismantling the two-party duopoly.
Like any successful duopoly, the Republicans and Democrats have done an excellent job of entrenching themselves by rigging the rules of the game. Roughly 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as independent — a bigger bloc than either party — yet there are only two independents in the U.S. Senate and none in the House.
Those numbers are hard to justify when the two parties are systematically failing at the basic tasks of governance.
We can reverse course. First, credible independents need to step forward and run on centrist platforms that transcend Republican or Democratic dogma. The process of identifying a different kind of candidate — someone willing to put country before team — must begin right now.
It needs to happen at every level of government. Today’s state representatives are tomorrow’s U.S. senators. Most state legislatures could use a dose of independent centrism, too.
Second, those of us with an historical allegiance to one political party or the other must have the courage to leave the tribe and support those independents. Political insanity is expecting the parties that created our current impasse to solve it.
A small bloc of independents, even three or four respected senators, could stand apart from the tribalism, almost like mediators, free to support the ideas from each party that are strongest substantively and most likely to garner mainstream support.
Any idea that comes out of the Democrat or Republican caucus is currently dead on arrival. But something that gets floated by the “centrist caucus” — well, that is neutral territory. When it comes to tough budget decisions, for example, centrist independents would be free from unrealistic promises (e.g., no changes to entitlements or no tax increases) that make a Simpson-Bowles type compromise impossible.
Third, we must systematically reform an electoral process that has been designed by the two parties for self-preservation. Across the country, good things are happening on this front already: independent redistricting commissions to preclude gerrymandering; open primaries to give more moderate candidates a chance to make the general election ballot; ranked-choice voting to give small parties and independents a fairer shot at winning.
Americans keep looking for the same system to produce better results. It is not going to happen. We have no reason to believe that the 2018 or 2020 elections will produce more inspiring candidates or better governance if the two parties maintain their stranglehold on the system.
The awful Trump-Clinton campaign was a symptom of political dysfunction, not a cause. The most important thing we can do now is to strengthen the system by moving beyond the parties. It is our best hope for better governance.