OPINION: From Washington to Trump: How our constitutional democracy eroded into a partisan power game – The Fulcrum
Leach, a Republican from Iowa, served in the House of Representatives from 1977 to 2007.
American political history can be traced from the framing of democratic constitutionalism to the challenge of the “Big Lie” and the narcissistic insurrection that it precipitated. Contrasting the philosophy and character traits of the first president of the United States with the most recent occupant of the White House could not be more relevant.
Several weeks before George Washington traveled to New York to take the oath of office at Federal Hall, he asked if James Madison would visit Mount Vernon to review a draft inaugural speech written by an aide. Washington gave Madison the proposed speech and asked if he would comment. After retiring to another room and reviewing the text, Madison reported to Washington that it was “terrible.”
“Why?” asked Washington, and Madison explained it had two significant faults: It was over an hour in length, which he was confident the audience of legislators would consider intolerable; and, most significantly, it failed to reflect the nature of the constitutional system that had just begun to unfold. It was too regal. Accordingly, Washington asked his fellow Virginian if he would consider presenting a different tact. Madison accepted and returned a few days later with a new draft.
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Despite old-fashioned, sometimes convoluted rhetoric, Washington’s first inaugural address provides a revealing perspective to the partisan divisions that have metastasized in recent years.
The address begins with a paragraph only the first president could have written. Indeed, no president or governor has ever begun an inaugural address as Washington did. What he chose to acknowledge to the Congress assembled in Federal Hall was a litany of his own weaknesses: 1) that his capacities were limited by inferior endowments granted to him by nature; 2) that he was unpracticed in civil administration; and 3) that in his declining years he had been wracked by frequent ravages in his health. In other words, the general who defeated one of the most powerful armies in history suggested that he was inexperienced, lacking in intelligence and in poor health.
Aside from this extraordinarily modest assessment of his personal capacities, Washington thoughtfully proceeded to stress the need for the newly defined branches of government to work together. The presidency, he pointed out under the new Constitution, had the obligation to “propose” legislative initiatives while the power to legislate was the clear province of Congress. Given the prospect that legislative turmoil could arise, he laid down three “no’s” on how public officials should avoid temptations: 1) there should be “no local prejudices” (i.e., the concerns of the national government should embody the public interest and supersede interest groups and local concerns); 2) there should be “no separate views” (i.e., states should not be allowed to secede); and 3) there should be “no party animosities” (i.e., members of Congress should respect each other).
Continuing to address motivation, Washington instead called on legislators to concentrate on following “the immutable demands of private morality.” This singular advice may seem unrealistically esoteric. Actually, it may be the most profound advice ever given to an elected official. What Washington, who uniquely distrusted political parties, recommended was for legislators to place a singular emphasis on individual judgment driven by moral concerns rather than partisan conformity or self-serving ambition.
As in other democracies, legislatures find themselves changing with the times, sometimes gradually, once in a while abruptly.
When I entered Congress in January 1977, both parties on Capitol Hill held caucuses every three or four months where reflective discussions would take place about issues coming before Congress and about elections that might be around the corner. The leadership of both parties as well as the majority of Members generally worked constructively together — although whichever party held the majority had a tendency to be somewhat arrogant at the committee level. By the time I left Congress three decades later, Members of the two legislative bodies, particularly the House of Representatives, had become increasingly disrespectful of the other party and its membership. The Congress had, in effect, become “caucus-ized.”
Party caucuses evolved into frequent closed-door meetings with attitudes more like a football team at halftime than an orchestra where musicians play assorted instruments in synch. Instead of statecraft, partisan objectives discussed in caucuses came principally to revolve around how the other side could be derailed rather than how legislation might be improved. Yet the oath of office a public official takes is not a party unity pledge. It is a commitment to uphold and defend the Constitution. Implicitly the oath legislators take requires members of Congress to honor separation of powers processes and the individual rights directives in the Bill of Rights that became more expansive as constitutional amendments were adopted.
As internal schisms grew, so did congressional dysfunction. With a breakdown in mutual trust, members increasingly considered their legislative work to be the principal province of political parties rather than the Congress as a whole. Overwhelming partisanship has the effect of denying a constructive role for a full complement of legislators, thus shielding millions of Americans from having their views considered in the legislative process.
Eight years after his delivery of the first inaugural address, Washington expanded on the concerns he initially laid out in New York by issuing his Farewell Address as he prepared to return to Mount Vernon. The Farewell Address, which included Madison’s and later Alexander Hamilton’s input, was never delivered as a speech. Rather the address was widely published as a letter in newspapers in 1796. Again, Washington advised fellow citizens to avoid excessive partisanship and recognize the importance of identifying more with the national interest than states or cities. Citizens, he warned, should be suspicious of individuals who advocate secession or suggest that the country was too big to be governed within its constitutional framework.
Whenever the national government over the years considered intervening militarily on other continents or at sea, historians and social critics traditionally found reason to emphasize Washington’s legendary warning against long-term alliances and policies that might make the country vulnerable to foreign entanglements.
What is seldom noted are the deep concerns Washington also registered against domestic intrigues, some of which had foreign influences. Washington may have had in mind aspects of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts (1786-87) that occurred prior to his assuming the presidency and the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-94) shortly thereafter, but his concerns for insurrection appear to go deeper. Accordingly, in his Farewell Address he carefully alerted his fellow citizens about “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled” leaders of political factions who seek to “subvert the power of the people” in order to “usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
Our first president made clear for posterity that “the will of the nation” could not be replaced by “the will of a party,” especially if it breached constitutional obligations. For Washington, political parties too often sharpened “the spirit of revenge,” agitated communities with ill-founded jealousies, kindled animosities, and occasionally fomented riots and insurrections. On the other hand, Washington considered governance unity, established by the Constitution, to be a pillar in the edifice of independence and stability.
Amidst the vast challenges of the 20th century, Washington’s concern for insurrection probably seemed like an irrelevant footnote. By contrast, in this new millennium his warnings resound with contemporary relevance. Indeed, no warning to the American public could apply more presciently to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on Capitol Hill than that issued 22 decades earlier by George Washington.
Abroad, the insurrection has transformed the way friends and foes look at our governance model. Perhaps the most dangerous and lasting aspect of the insurrection relates to the way a cunning president may in the eyes of his followers legitimize violence with a narcissistic stamp of approval. One such event can lead to others and precipitate copycat insurrections in any state in the union. Our nation’s capital could even be vulnerable to similar assaults. For 230 years, the Constitution has symbolized free people working together. Now that heralded tradition is being challenged from within.
From an early age Washington cogitated on the subject of morality. As a 16 year old, he copied a small treatise composed by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated it into English. The treatise contained 110 rules of civil behavior that he was required to study, perhaps as a penmanship as well as ethics assignment. The last civility rule read: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
Today the spirit of America is on trial. When emotive partisanship threatens the very core of our democracy the public must insist that the ship of state be righted. One approach is to press candidates for office to publicly acknowledge, perhaps even sign a civility pledge, noting that:
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin have proposed an amendment to the Voting Rights Advancement Act in an effort to garner bipartisan support for the bill.
Senate Democrats are planning another push to advance voting rights legislation, and while this time at least one Republican is on board, the bill appears to be going nowhere.
GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has signed on to a revised version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, along with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, until now the sole Democratic holdout on the bill. Murkowski and Manchin announced Tuesday that they had reached a deal with Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Patrick Leahy, lead sponsor of the bill.
However, the VRAA will still likely fall nine Republican votes short of overcoming a filibuster when the legislation is brought to the floor Wednesday afternoon for a procedural vote.
While most Republicans remain staunchly opposed to the latest version of the voting rights bill, historically the issue has been largely bipartisan. The original Voting Rights Act of 1965 was approved by a 77-19 vote in the Senate, with 30 Republicans in favor. Subsequent amendments to the Voting Rights Act were also approved in a bipartisan manner.
The most recent reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 was passed unanimously in the Senate, and 10 of the Republicans who voted in favor are still serving: Richard Burr, Susan Collins, John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, Jim Inhofe, Mitch McConnell, Lisa Murkowski, Richard Shelby and John Thune.
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“To my Republican friends in the Senate: a vote in support of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act should not be a difficult decision,” said former GOP Rep Carlos Curbelo, now a board member of the crosspartisan good-government group Issue One. “By restoring a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that prevents discriminatory voting policies, our elected leaders can proudly proclaim that voting should be accessible to all Americans — no matter your political ideology, gender, skin color or ZIP code.”
But this time around, Murkowski is the only Republican who has been willing to work with Democrats on the voting rights legislation.
“Voting rights are fundamental to our democracy and how we protect them defines us as a nation. I have supported this particular legislation in previous Congresses and continued to work with my colleagues on it, because it provides a framework through which legitimate voting rights issues can be tackled,” Murkowski said.
If the VRAA were to become law, it would restore voting protections struck down by the Supreme Court. In 2013, the court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder eliminated the preclearance requirement, which mandated certain states with histories of racial discrimination receive advanced approval from the Justice Department before enacting new voting laws. The court’s decision this summer in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee made it harder to challenge potentially discriminatory laws in court.
The amendment brought by Murkowski and Manchin builds on the original version of the VRAA, modifying which factors courts can take into account for cases of potential voting rights violations. These changes are being proposed in an attempt to garner more GOP support for the bill.
The Murkowski-Manchin amendment also incorporates provisions from the Native American Voting Rights Act to address the unique barriers faced by Native American voters on tribal lands.
“Sen. Murkowski’s support for the bill and for Native voting rights shows that she has been listening to Alaska Native voters and realizes the absolute importance of making long overdue progress to establish and protect voting rights for this land’s first peoples,” said Jacqueline De León, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.
If Republicans block consideration of the VRAA as expected, they might tee up serious consideration of filibuster reform. Voting rights advocates have been turning up the heat on Democrats to modify or nix the procedural tool, as it has increasingly been used to block their legislative priorities.
Last month, the Freedom to Vote Act was blocked in the Senate by a GOP filibuster. A couple days later, President Biden said during a CNN town hall that he would be open to changing the filibuster rules in order to pass the Democrats’ long-stalled electoral reform legislation.
“The filibuster in its current form is poisoning our democracy. It’s way too easy for one person to block legislation that the majority of the country supports,” said Josh Silver, CEO and co-founder of RepresentUs. “There are many ways we could fix the filibuster to restore the Senate, and it’s time for the president and senators to choose saving democracy over an arcane rule.”
The Freedom to Vote Act was a compromise bill that built on the For the People Act, which was also blocked by a filibuster earlier this year.
As millions of Americans head back to the office for the first time since the pandemic hit, this episode of the How Do We Fix It podcast reminds us of creative ways to develop stronger and more productive relationships with those that we live and work with every day.
Gates and Gerzon are co-directors of Philanthropy Bridging Divides, a transpartisan conversation among America’s philanthropic leaders.
In last month’s column we looked closely at our fellow citizens who do not want to bridge divides. There are clearly those who disagree with the very concept of bridging and want to fight a war to win.
But there is another group that is harder to recognize. They are the “false bridgers” or “manipulative bridgers.” Whether they are conservatives reaching out to progressives or, more commonly, progressives reaching out to conservatives, their intentions are to use the concept of bridging to advance their cause, not to find shared ground.
Based on this well-crafted, time-tested, Machiavellian language, these so-called “bridgers” use the language of listening and inclusion to in essence build a trap for their opponents.
In most cases these so-called bridging events fail, as they should. They also serve to poison the well for those who are sincere about wanting to bridge divides and hear other perspectives. We have both witnessed this professionally. People are invited into a bridging conversation that turns out to be nothing of the sort. It makes it that much harder when an authentic bridger makes a subsequent overture.
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In retrospect, these efforts often do not turn out to have been on a level playing field. Yes, the conveners have used the lexicon of negotiation and problem-solving. Yes, the hosts have worked hard to get a few “diverse voices” in the room. But all too often the “outsiders” feel not only outnumbered but ultimately unheard. The more eloquently they express their “minority” perspective, the quicker the barrage of rebuttals begins. They leave these faux bridging experiences feeling disillusioned and sometimes even used.
It is tempting but wrong to excuse these failed efforts because their architects meant well and tried hard. In our experiences most of these failed efforts were designed to persuade and convert and not find shared ground. Of course both of us applaud all well-intentioned efforts, we recognize how challenging it is to bridge across the widening chasm of polarization in America today. But we also have to be honest: False bridges cause damage.
A covert desire to persuade the “other side” using the language of bridging is dangerous. Such efforts raise hopes and then dash them. They promise progress but do not deliver. They make people skeptical about words like “bridge” or “dialogue” or “partnership.” They make it harder for anyone who later tries to build a real bridge to get support.
We encourage anyone who intends to be a catalyst for a “bridging” event or process to first step back and be honest about their intentions. If your desire is to “win,” then the conversation is not likely a bridging one. If your heart and mind are open to learning and hearing other perspectives, then your desire to bridge is authentic. Our point is not that all conversations need to be about bridging but rather that it is critical people be clear and transparent about their intentions.
Please know that the intent of this column is not to be a warning sign that reads “Keep Out!” but rather one that says “Be Intentional!” We absolutely need more skillful, thoughtful peacemakers to step into the no man’s land between the partisan armies of Left and Right and seek common ground. But we want those who meet this challenge to be safe, and to succeed — not become part of the problem that we are setting out to solve.
In our next column, we will share in more detail what we have learned about real bridging and why it matters now, more than ever.
Students at the University of Pittsburgh register their peers ahead of the 2020 election. The student voting rate last year reached an all-time high of 66 percent.
One year after the contentious presidential election, voters are headed to the polls again Tuesday to decide a slate of key statewide and municipal contests. Young people will be an especially important voting bloc to watch after they turned out in record numbers last November.
Two-thirds of college students cast a ballot in the 2020 election, according to a report released last week by Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education. This record turnout was a 14 percentage point jump from 2016, putting the student voting rate on par with the national average.
But Tuesday’s elections will also be a test of the dozens of state voting laws enacted this year. While some states expanded access to the ballot box, others tightened rules around voting. And many of these new voting barriers will have a disparate impact on students, especially young people of color.
Despite higher education and the election being upended by the pandemic, students still turned out in droves for the 2020 presidential contest. More than four-fifths of eligible student voters registered, and of those registered voters, 80 percent cast a ballot, signifying young people’s high motivation to get out the vote.
“We attribute this high level of participation to many factors, including student activism on issues such as racial injustice, global climate change and voter suppression, as well as increased efforts by educators to reach students and connect them to the issues and to voting resources,” said IDHE Director Nancy Thomas.
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Young voters face unique challenges because they are often first-time voters and they are highly mobile so their voting address is often subject to change. Educating young voters about the election process, as well as the many new laws enacted by state lawmakers this year is a high priority for civic engagement groups.
With limited in-person interactions due to Covid-19, colleges had to find innovative new ways to engage student voters. At the University of California, San Diego, school officials integrated voter registration with Covid-19 testing. Students were given a QR code to register to vote while waiting to be tested. At Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, students take a civic engagement course within their major as part of a five-year plan to encourage civic learning and participation on campus.
UCSD’s student voting rate was 71 percent in 2020, a 27-point surge from four years prior. Student turnout data for PVCC was not yet available.
The National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement is the most comprehensive analysis of college and university student voting in the country. The study has been conducted by researchers at Tufts after every general and midterm election since 2012. This fifth iteration of the study collected data from nearly 1,200 campuses of all types, including community colleges, research universities, minority-serving and women’s colleges, state universities and private institutions.
Nearly all the campuses included in the study (97 percent) saw increased voter turnout in the 2020 election. The youngest college students (18- and 19-year-olds) voted at slightly higher rates than their older peers.
Asian American students had the biggest increase in voter turnout: a 17-point jump from 2016 to 2020. While this boost was a significant improvement, Asian American student turnout (51 percent) still lagged 20 points behind white student turnout (71 percent).
At 66 percent, multiracial students had the second highest turnout rate behind white students, followed by Black students at 63 percent and Hispanic students at 60 percent.
Women students of all races and ethnicities continued to vote at higher rates than men. Overall, 64 percent of women cast a ballot in the 2020 election, compared to 58 percent of men. White women had the highest turnout rate at 73 percent, while Asian American men had the lowest at 46 percent.
Moving forward, researchers at Tufts will be exploring the different factors that motivate and hinder student voting. Those findings will be released in a second report later this fall.
In this edition of Ballotpedia’s Beyond the Headlines, the Ballotpedia team reviews the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2021-2022 term, including accepted cases, upcoming argument sessions, rulings of the court, and some important statistical data.
George Tech men’s basketball coach Eric Reveno started the #AllVoteNoPlay movement for college athletics.
This year there will be no practice or games on Election Day for NCAA Division I athletes.
Thanks to #AllVoteNoPlay, student-sponsored NCAA legislation that passed unanimously last year, these athletes will instead be given time off to vote or engage in civic activity.
#AllVoteNoPlay started with Eric Reveno, associate head coach of Georgia Tech men’s basketball. It began when a polarized election pushed voting to the forefront of our national consciousness. But the spirit of #AllVoteNoPlay, as Coach Rev says, is so much bigger than voting. It’s about igniting a cultural shift in college athletics.
It’s about getting coaches to talk about civics, and changing the perception of Election Day from a day off from practice to a day on for learning, engaging and growing in civic understanding and community leadership.
Why coaches? Because 75 percent of NCAA athletes want more opportunities for civic engagement — and who’s better poised to lead, model and support their efforts than the most trusted adults in their lives?
Still, asking coaches to support their athletes’ ability to vote in a major national election is one thing. Asking them to take on a new role as civic educators is something else entirely.
“At one point in time, I thought — probably like many of you — that civics was a subject only for the classroom, [aside from] making sure my players knew where to vote on Election Day,” Coach Rev says when speaking to his colleagues in athletic programs across the country. “I’ve since learned that focusing just on voting is like thinking that our players only have to show up on game days, without putting in the hard work in between to build their skills. And I’ve learned that my players are young men of character and curiosity who want to help drive positive change in the world around them, but they need guidance from trusted adults like me to help them get there.”
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His is a quiet movement, one that’s been met with reluctance from the very people he hoped would embrace it. But slowly, a groundswell of support for #AllVoteNoPlay has bubbled up on campuses across the country. From community colleges through Division I programs, change is happening.
Drawing on the new #AllVoteNoPlay Playbook — a collection of inspiring ideas and actions curated by Vote by Design, a team of civic learning experts, athletes and coaches like Rev himself — coaches and athletes are developing their civic conditioning:
Big plans were implemented to make Nov. 2 a “day on.” Vanderbilt Athletics is organizing campus-wide activities and service. Athletes are volunteering at local schools, creating videos for children in area hospitals, mentoring Special Olympics athletes on campus and participating in campus conversations. Their visionary athletic director, Candace Storey Lee, sees the direct connection between these efforts and a larger push at Vanderbilt to commit to civic engagement and growth through ongoing conversations about privilege, race, inclusion, and learning from others through listening and active dialogue.
At Skyline Community College in California, #AllVoteNoPlay is more than just a single day. Its observances kicked off with a dedicated time for each player on the men’s basketball team to learn how to check their voter registration status, and register as needed, with their coaches’ support. The team also hosted a special guest, San Mateo County Board of Supervisors President David Canepa, for a team conversation about the importance of civic engagement and involvement in their local community.
Yale is getting into the spirit of #AllVoteNoPlay, led by sophomore tight end Ryan Belk, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Belk is hosting a Team Bulldog Ballot Breakfast on Nov. 2 to watch and discuss videos by Citizen University CEO Eric Liu on the power, joy and responsibility of voting and civic engagement through a “Votesgiving” gathering.
Belk isn’t the only student who’s spearheading #AllVoteNoPlay on campus. Stanford basketball player Sam Beskind, women’s water polo Coach John Tanner and others are coordinating a campus-wide celebration of #AllVoteNoPlay as part of Stanford’s Democracy Day. A student-athlete gathering at the Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (better known as the d. School) will offer hands-on “civic drills” and celebrate the university’s commitment to helping athletes engage as active, productive citizens.
And what about Coach Rev? As you might expect, the founder and champion of #AllVoteNoPlay has something special planned. He’s taking the Georgia Tech men’s basketball team to the Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta. There, they’ll trace the historic legacy of Atlanta in the fight for voting rights, and honor the contributions of heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and many others.
Last year, over $14 billion was spent on the 2020 election cycle. It was a record-breaking amount — nearly double the previous total — and it produced one of the most divisive campaigns in recent U.S. history. But the 2020 election also has a positive legacy to carry forward: the greatest youth voter turnout in history. With the help of #allVoteNoPlay, this movement of agency and future focus is taking root on campuses all across the country. It’s a cultural shift that started with one man, who saw his responsibility to cultivate leadership beyond the basketball court — and set a new standard for coaches everywhere.
It’s time for coaches to get more involved in civics. And they’re answering the call.
We heard from you about our “Tricks or Treats for Democracy” on Friday. Here are a few tricks that we missed:
We wish you had sent in more treats!
Voters in Virginia, one of the states that recognizes general Election Day as a legal holiday, line up to cast their ballot in the state’s highly contested governor’s race.
Tuesday is Election Day, but only in some parts of the country will voters get the day off to cast their ballots.
Voters in more than one-third of the country enjoy some form of an Election Day holiday, according to RepresentUs. Most of these 19 states’ policies only cover general elections, though.
The Freedom to Vote Act, federal legislation that would enact sweeping election reform, includes a provision that would make Election Day a national holiday for federal contests. Voting rights advocates say this simple change would significantly boost voter turnout because more Americans would have time off work to cast a ballot.
However, passing the Freedom to Vote Act remains out of reach while the Senate’s filibuster rule, which allows a minority of 40 senators to block legislation, remains in place. President Biden said during a CNN town hall last month that he would be open to filibuster changes in order to pass the Democrats’ long-stalled electoral reform legislation.
In the meantime, here are the states that already have policies givng voters time off to cast a ballot:
As election day nears, the Let’s Find Common Ground podcast speaks with two members of Congress, one Republican and one Democrat, who are reaching across rigid partisan divides, recognizing the value of compromise and seeking constructive change.
Voters line up to cast early ballots in Virginia.
While cable news and statehouses are focused on the “big lie” following the 2020 presidential election, a more insidious (and immediate) threat awaits the jurisdictions conducting elections this week: the weaponization of real vulnerabilities in election systems to falsely cast doubt on the integrity of elections overall.
One of the most surprising takeaways from the unsuccessful challenges to the 2020 election results is the level of support they’ve garnered despite being largely evidence-free. Almost no legal challenges to the presidential election were successful, the difference in vote totals (both actual and electoral) between the two major presidential election candidates was not small, and nearly every voter cast a paper ballot that could be subsequently reviewed.
Consider what could have happened if the challenges to the legitimacy of 2020 had either kernels of truth and/or were associated with a particularly close race? We have no way of knowing for certain, but it’s not a stretch to think that our already precarious democracy would be in even more dire straits.
That question may not be so speculative next week, as demonstrated by Virginia’s neck-and-neck gubernatorial contest. Putting aside the campaign rhetoric stoking the election conspiracy fire, Virginia’s election processes are not perfect. For example, Virginia audits elections every year, but only after the certification of election results. That is important but less than ideal because it means that potentially erroneous election results cannot be changed. Moreover, the post-election audit does not cover the entire state — localities are chosen at random after the election — so it’s possible that a problem somewhere in the state would not be identified in the audit.
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Along with Virginia, New Jersey also has a race for governor and an imperfect election system. Absent extraordinary circumstances, like a pandemic, New Jersey remains one of only a handful of states that rely heavily on direct recording electronic (DREs) machines that do not print a paper trail backup. DREs are more susceptible to counting errors and malicious attacks than paper-based voting systems, and their use also raises another mis- and disinformation concern: Conspiracy theorists hell bent on further undermining U.S. democracy can more easily manipulate any minor change or error during a vote count, giving false claims of rigging and hacking more traction.
While important to note, such vulnerabilities do not mean that the 2021 New Jersey and Virginia elections are likely to be compromised. Every state’s election systems can be strengthened, but that’s a far cry from having vulnerabilities that are exploited at such a scale to alter the outcome of an election.
Anyone who asserts that a U.S. election is illegitimate is making an extraordinary claim that needs to be supported by compelling and verifiable evidence. Simply noting the existence of a vulnerability does not mean it has been or will be exploited, let alone that it altered an outcome (though reporting them in a responsible, timely manner to those who work on the fronts lines of our elections can help bolster the security of elections against malign actors).
All states, including Virginia and New Jersey, have election security practices and mechanisms designed to increase confidence in election outcomes. Virginia has all paper ballots and post-election risk-limiting audits to validate its results, and there have not been any issues with the audits since the law mandating them was adopted in 2018. And while most New Jersey counties still use paperless voting on Election Day, the state has put in place a variety of measures to mitigate the accompanying risks, including cybersecurity, physical security, training, updated voting equipment and auditing. Additionally, New Jersey now offers nine days of early voting on paper-based systems and over 900,000 voters signed up to receive their ballots by mail.
It should not come as a shock if bad-faith actors try to exploit vulnerabilities in our election systems in an effort to undermine voter confidence. What would come as a shock is if such efforts succeed in altering the results of an election. I wouldn’t bet on it, but this is not a time for complacency.
Voters should be confident in the integrity of their election(s) and if they have questions about their election processes, they should turn to trusted sources of information, such as state and local election officials, who have a proven track record of putting the conduct of free and fair elections before any personal interests. Trust but verify.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi can drive action in the House without considering individual members’ input, and that has to change, writes Strand.
“It’s all part of the process,” President Biden said about progressive protestors filming Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in a public bathroom. That’s not part of the legislative process. Rather, it is part of the dysfunction and incivility that threatens the process.
The success of democratic government lies in diverse people arguing about deeply held beliefs of constituents in an atmosphere of respect and inalienable rights. Legislatures are civilizations answer to authoritarianism. The alternative is violence and survival of the fittest in a de-civilizing world. What some people call illiberal democracy is merely a bus stop on the way to authoritarianism.
Our legislative process is broken. During the last few months, the concerns of moderate House Democrats were heeded only when they threatened to sink the $3.5 trillion measure that is the largest expansion of domestic social programs this country has ever seen. Progressive House Democrats resorted to name-calling and primary threats against senators of their own party who they saw as not toeing the party line. Speaker Nancy Pelosi only considered support from House Republicans when it looked like she would need to pick off a few to win two very contentious votes.
But while a bipartisan group of Senators were actively involved in negotiating with the White House to develop the original infrastructure bill, the speaker’s office has driven House action.
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It is ludicrous, in our democracy, to think that a $5 trillion spending bill could pass without the full participation of the entire Congress, including hearings, committee markups, and an open and fair amendment process on the House floor.
The reality is that today, municipal legislatures and councils have a more robust amendment process than the House. Members who want to influence the outcome of legislation have an incentive to work with their colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Yet, over the last few decades, both parties have made it more difficult for individual members to legislate and then we act surprised when we see a lack of collegiality and collaboration.
The floor itself is where we see this most starkly as members are no longer free to offer amendments, and special rules are either closed to amendments or overly restrictive. According to the House Rules Committee’s “Survey of Activities” for the 116th Congress, there were no open or modified open rules for that entire Congress.
Such restrictions reduce members’ abilities to proactively participate in crafting legislation and representing their constituents. Spontaneity, creativity and representation on the floor have declined as has civility.
The limitations benefit the majority leadership. But every member, down to the newest freshman, speaks for constituents who are owed no less vigorous representation than powerful committee chairs or even the speaker.
In addition to participating in the legislative process, members derive much of their power through their constitutional prerogative to exercise oversight of the executive branch. For too long, committees and Congress have failed to authorize too many parts of the government, resulting in a lack of oversight and therefore a lack of accountability of the legislature over the executive.
Since most members and chairs are authorizers, committee rooms are natural places for Republicans and Democrats to work together on commonsense solutions and overcome rampant partisanship and polarization.
To get Congress back to regular order and create opportunities for members to actively participate in legislation, steps include:
While some of those steps can be accomplished through rules changes, others require legislation. That may mean taking a tough vote, but Congress is the big leagues. Members who fought hard to be here should not hide behind the Rules Committee to avoid tough votes.
The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has done a lot of great, bipartisan work to help Congress become effective. A natural outgrowth of their work would be a Joint Committee on Congressional Reform, which has been done several times over the last century when Congress recognized it needed significant reforms to retain its relevancy and power. The 117th Congress would be the ideal time for this committee to gain a Senate counterpart to more vigorously restore and strengthen the legislative function of government.
Confidence in Congress continues to decline partly due to not allowing members to legislate. If a Congress is not legislating, its value to its constituents is diminished as their problems and concerns are left unaddressed. Is it any wonder that much of Congress’ power has shifted to the president?
Restoring a healthy legislative function is a prerequisite to reducing incivility and increasing collaboration. But more importantly, it is essential to maintaining our system of checks and balances that prevents a strong executive branch from dominating the government.
On this Friday before Halloween, we were thinking about how democracy in our constitutional republic can be filled with tricks or treats for citizens. We compiled a list of both. What would you add? Email us your ideas and we’ll share them with our readers next week.
Weston is executive director of the Fierce Civility Project and the author of “Mastering Respectful Confrontation.”
My work colleague thinks conflict is good and leads to better results. Some of my other colleagues seem to be okay with his abrasive, combative behavior. He likes to make fun of me and calls me “sensitive” if I call him on it. It’s exhausting. How can I deal with him?
Bullied and Exhausted
I can imagine you are having a tough time if you are feeling both bullied and exhausted. My first suggestion is to see what steps you can take to cultivate “resilience.” In the Fierce Civility practice, we define resilience as the capacity to address challenges with ease, skill and confidence. Resilience is not enduring struggles. When you have cultivated what we call “resilient power,” you feel physically vital, emotionally stable and mentally clear. Are you pushing yourself — a kind of self-bullying — to work in a way that isn’t serving you, causing you to burn out? What self-care practices can you build into your day to reduce exhaustion and increase your energy and effectiveness?
Now let’s address the issue with your colleague. Start with asking some clarifying questions. In the conflict resolution world, you will often hear about “good” conflict and “bad” conflict. Bad conflict causes harm. Good conflict can use the tension of differences to initiate more creativity and focus. At the Fierce Civility Project we try to minimize the need to use words like “good” and “bad,” which, as judgments, can create separation. The important question is, “To what degree is the conflict bringing harm, benefits or some combination of both?”
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So, on some level, if he is suggesting that using “good” conflict can inspire, focus and make the team more effective, and if it works for everyone involved, I can see his viewpoint. So, I would suggest asking him, in a truly curious, respectful way, “What do you mean by conflict?” And, “What do you think it should look like?” If it includes respect and a commitment to not harming, then I would say try it out. You may develop more resilience in the process.
However, stating that conflict is a way to get better results could be a way to excuse harmful behavior, or avoid being held accountable for bullying. This is different. If he has no concern about harming others, then I would start with clarifying and stating your boundaries. Where do you draw the line with how you are treated? When does the process of dealing with challenges and deadlines go from feeling uncomfortable (which can be healthy) to feeling unsafe?
You can’t change people, but, with respect and patience, you can influence behavior. Find a time and place when you can talk to him, where you both feel safe and not attacked. Make him aware of his specific behavior without judgment, how it is affecting you, and what you would need to function in a work environment that is productive and not exhausting. Can you clarify why this way of working feels exhausting for you? Hopefully this will make him consider his approach.
Perhaps add the message, “I can see how you might think that this is a good strategy for getting the best out of people. And I can see how it works with some. I would like to continue to do my best work. However, with my kind of personality and value system, using conflict is not the best strategy to get me to excel. Can we discuss other options?”
I am not guaranteeing that this will get him to suddenly behave differently, but it is certainly a start in terms of helping you clarify what your boundaries are and how to advocate for yourself. Feel free to get back in touch if you have any more questions (or check out my book, “Mastering Respectful Confrontation,” to find out more ways to effectively confront someone, as well as ways to cultivate more resilient power).
With clarifying power,
“Ask Joe” is dedicated to exploring the best ways to transform tensions and bridge divides. Our resident advice columnist and conflict resolution specialist, Joe Weston, is here to answer your questions in order to resolve tension, polarization, or conflict.
Bridging divides is not about being on the same page; it’s about being able to disagree well. And it all relies on one very important foundation: a trusting relationship. On this episode of the Civil Squared podcast, host Jennifer Thompson is joined by founder and CEO of The Village Square, Liz Joyner, to discuss the importance of building trust before you try and build bridges between disagreements on contentious issues.