The state of democracy: How to bridge the divide in today’s hyper-partisan climate
The Washington where I began my career was a community where people held on tightly to their political party and fought the good fight, but there was pride in making a deal at the end of the day. Back then, the guiding political philosophy was Jeremy Bentham’s principle that legislators “should aim for producing the greatest good for the greatest number.” Of course, a lot has changed since then.
Today, partisanship is at an all-time high, and it’s created a political system that fosters inaction. We see it today in Congress: Republicans don’t want to give Democrats legislative wins to give them credit when they are in the majority, and vice versa. The lack of progress on the President’s Build Back Better (BBB) bill is a telling example of the inability to negotiate in good faith and compromise for the good of the people.
Many factors have led to the hyper-partisan state – from re-districting to the rise in polarized media. These are just a few factors that have eliminated the goal of compromise that once existed. Simply put, “compromise” has become an evil word.
How do we change the tide? How do we find a path forward where our political system can once again achieve progress for the good of the people and the country as a whole? We know it won’t be easy, and there’s no perfect solution. But there are steps we can all take to get our system of government back on track.
As a public affairs strategist, I know firsthand that if you’re going to get legislation passed, it must have something in it for everyone – from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin to Rob Portman; something that gives Members of Congress legislative victories and something positive to talk about with their constituents back home.
You must develop messaging and communications that appeal to diverse constituencies in both parties: Messages that demonstrate both to the left and right that they should have a vested interest in supporting legislation because some part of the legislative package will benefit their constituents and their community. But first, it must start with creating a messaging platform that demonstrates to Americans in districts across the political spectrum that action is a good thing.
In my experience, successful legislative efforts were built on the ability to communicate its benefits to real constituents at the local level. Oftentimes, we would start communicating on a policy with local editorial boards – to show the community how the policy benefits them directly and help bring Members of Congress to the table.
Today’s situation demonstrates the need for strong communications at the local level and ensuring that people from all corners of America have access to local news sources that are trusted. Today, people pick where they get their news from. If you don’t want to hear something bad about President Biden or President Trump, you just need to choose the right station.
We need to embrace the changing nature of today’s news and tap into those outlets that reach any target constituencies. Ensuring there are still local news outlets that will be important but reaching local constituencies will require harnessing trusted influential voices and deploying them on social media channels. There is still a pathway for local voices to get Members out of their corner and bring them to the table, but the channels have shifted.
A harder path will be for the “DC community” to help bridge the divide. It’s challenging to get people out of their respective corners to work together for the people’s good. The short-term political calculus always comes into play. Politics is the art of compromise. You fight the good fight, but everyone walks away with something that helps the folks back home at the end of the day. Our political community needs to quit putting themselves first and start putting the needs of their constituents ahead of their own. If we can achieve that lofty goal, we will take a big step toward restoring value in our political system.
Gloria Story Dittus is the Chair of Story Partners, a leading public affairs agency in Washington, D.C. With 30+ years of public policy, communications and political experience, Gloria is a trusted counselor who provides strategic communications, corporate positioning and messaging advice to members of Congress, cabinet Secretaries and business leaders.