Fixing Gridlock, One Citizen at a Time

We may be looking in the wrong place to fix political gridlock. That job may fall to citizens who can reward good behavior, vote out bad actors and encourage the best and brightest to serve.In the wake of the DC shutdown, the debate among political commentators is whether or not our political process is broken. Yet again, a last-minute deal avoided the worst possible blow to our economy, but years of brinksmanship behavior in Congress has decimated the public’s trust in our national elected leaders.

Oregon’s recent special session stands in stark contrast to the DC drama. Despite principled disagreements, elected leaders found a compromise capable of gaining votes from members of both political parties in both houses of the legislature. Yet, even in a state that has become known for its ability to do tough things together, Oregon has struggled from time to time to find political agreements.

A common question asked of politicians is what can be done to fix this political gridlock that is hampering the public’s trust in its government. Substantive suggestions rarely follow such questions, but blame is quick to be shared. 

Truth is, the question ought to be asked of citizens. What are we doing to fix the political system?

Here are a few suggestions on how average citizens can improve the political climate in their country:

Pay attention 

Friend your elected officials on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, sign up for their newsletter or read a newspaper occasionally. Does his newsletter rant about the opposing party’s leaders? Are her tweets snarky about her colleagues? Or, are his Facebook posts talking about finding a middle ground or seeking input into a process? 

Negative public posturing makes it difficult for politicians to develop the level of trust necessary to negotiate behind closed doors. Effective governance is about finding solutions, not blaming the other side. Anyone with a teenager knows the difference between legitimate grievance-airing and thinly veiled efforts to grouse about someone who made you mad. 

Reward good behavior

Send a note or email or pick up the phone and call your elected official when you see bipartisanship occur. Did he sponsor a bill with a member of the other party? Did she go out on a limb and help fashion a compromise?

State and federal elected officials receive a lot of mail, but surprisingly few thank you notes. Such small gestures are noticed, appreciated and help to build a culture that rewards good behavior.

Vote

Average citizens become annoyed with politicians and stop voting because “it doesn’t make a difference.” When the middle disengages from voting, politicians are left to pander to the political left and right, which tend to discourage cooperation.

Politicians spend thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars to garner votes from those who will show up. What they say and do during elections sets the tone for what they do while in office. Vote for people who will take principled stands, but respect their opposition enough to listen to their voices and find common ground. Force politicians to earn your vote. Ask questions about their plans to work with their opposition during the campaign season. And, most of all, vote.

Contribute

If your elected official is doing the right thing and working across party lines to find solutions, it’s a fair bet he isn’t going to be embraced by the major party interest groups/funders that prefer dogmatic loyalty. Write a check (it doesn’t have to be big) and tell your elected official why he gained your support. If another candidate promises to be a better alternative, contribute and share your interest in electing candidates willing to find common ground.

Encourage our best and brightest to serve 

Being an elected official is harder than it looks. But good governance starts with the best people — those who are smart, inquisitive, good listeners and excellent problem-solver. Ideal candidates are those who understand they don't know everything about every subject and have a deep and abiding love for the state/country they want to serve.

We need more good people to run for office. All too often, good potential candidates cannot afford the financial loss of serving in the Oregon legislature. Therefore, we need good employers to encourage their best employees to run and to support them in their public service. 

Excellent candidates, focused on finding positive solutions to our problems, raises the level of debate of an election cycle and ultimately the level of governance to follow.