We can never know exactly what was going on in the mind of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' shooter and we at The Utopianist aren't even going to try. The suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, left behind an internet history full of incoherent political ideologies that make it hard to lay blame on any media or political figure. It is, however, inevitable that talk of inflamed political rhetoric and hyper-partisanship will figure prominently in the news during the next couple of weeks.
Instead of laying blame, we wanted to examine potential remedies to the extremely partisan society we find ourselves living in. It is a problem with no easy answer. Bill Bishops, author of The Big Sort, sees the problem as a result of Americans self-segregating into politically and culturally homogenous clusters.
"Society is lined up like toothpicks in a box," Bishops wrote to us in an email. "Religion aligns with values. Values align with neighborhood. Neighborhood aligns with lifestyle. Both sides believe their opponents are threatening a 'way of life.' And in national elections, everything aligns with party. So that's the problem. How do you introduce cross cutting issues into the system? That's what we need."
We obviously can't force people to move into politically heterogeneous neighborhoods, nor would we want to. What we can do is introduce social norms and political institutions that aim to combat destructive hyper-partisanship and help urge in a new era of civil, intelligent debate.
1. Grassroots Movements to Restore a Bipartisan Dialogue: The No Labels movement isn't perfect; it's populated by politicians who don't have much to lose (i.e. election losers, politicians on their last term, etc.) and the language behind it is vague at best. Still, any call to calmer, more polite political discourse is welcome in these hyper-partisan days. Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" didn't have a strictly defined mission and yet more than 200,000 people crammed into the National Mall to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo (granted, most of them leaned to the left). No Labels has mostly been derided by the press as a toothless PR stunt for politicians to establish their "bipartisan" credentials but I'm not so sure we should write it off so quickly. One of the most important functions of the group is monitoring members of our government in the followings areas: civility, compromise, bipartisan sponsorship on bills and willingness to break with the party line. It's not perfect, but it's a start; politicians are used to being called out by party purists demanding ideological conformity. If they started worrying about pleasing bipartisan watchdogs, we would all be better off.
2. Pressure the Media: Jon Stewart's rally did put pressure on politicians to tone down the rhetoric but most of its criticism was focused at the media. It's no secret why the media encourages hyper-partisan ranting. Just look at the rise of MSNBC, who, after pushing hard to be recognized as the liberal antidote to Fox News, started whomping CNN in primetime ratings. It's hard to see why any TV or radio host would take a more measured approach to politics after seeing their ratings -- and bank statements -- rise dramatically the more loudly partisan they become. Yet there is hope. Stewart is one of the more effective media watchdogs out there. The recent shooting has unleashed a torrent of media criticism decrying the talking heads on the left and right who speak as if the apocalypse is right around the corner. The main thing we can do is support the more measured sources of news available to us; the idea of objective news is a tricky one, but that doesn't mean you can't opt for, say, the more reasonable tone of The New York Times instead of the blabbering of Keith Olbermann or the Wall Street Journal instead of the conspiracy theories of Glenn Beck. We all like to have our viewpoints reinforced and be told we're part of the solution and they are part of the problem, but the media isn't going to change until the profit incentive changes, and that pretty much rests on all of us.
3. Foster Involvement in Local Politics: It is a strange quirk in American politics that national elections generally have much higher turnouts than local elections, despite the fact that local politicians have a much bigger influence on our daily lives. In a democracy where most voters have a choice of two parties, both influenced heavily by lobbyists and corporate money, it can be easy to feel like your vote doesn't really matter. It's no wonder that most voters simply attach themselves to a red team or a blue team, passively watching the political process as if it were a spectator sport. But what if citizens were more involved in their own governance? What if, through direct democracy measures like municipal participatory budgeting (see: Porto Alegre, Brazil) and publicly funded elections, people felt like they were directly involved in the down-and-dirty process of politics, with all of the compromise and careful budgeting that requires? Cynics might say that people aren't smart or motivated enough to be that involved in their own governance; we say, give them the opportunity, and you'll see a lot of that apathy and partisanship disappear.
4. Crack Down on Campaign Finance Laws: This has been the aim of bipartisan efforts for years: Eliminating the influence of individual and corporate donations on elections. The excess funding of political campaigns, resulting in TV, radio, and other ads -- many of them attacks or otherwise derogatory -- only heightens the divisive culture of American politics. It stands to reason that if campaign finance laws were tightened, and money were less ample, the combative atmosphere may wane.
The McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act actually did crack down on campaign finance laws by installing limits on the influence corporations could extend. Unfortunately, it wasn't strong enough to subvert the culture of corporate campaign finance altogether -- and even so, the United U.S. Supreme Court struck most of the law down last year as a result of its Citizens United ruling.
5. Get a Part-Time Direct Democracy: Alright, let's get a little more utopianist here -- what if the reasons we keep seeing bipartisan tensions ratcheted up are structural ones? What if the representative democracy that forms the foundation of our political system is partly to blame for the divisive rancor that seems to perpetually creep up in American politics? And how could this be?
Well, it may be the case that a representative democracy system -- one where we elect the leaders, and the leaders vote on the issues -- is leaving large swaths of the population routinely feeling disenfranchised. Americans can only cast a vote on federal politics every two years. And as we've seen, a lot can happen to make folks mad in two years. When some conservatives felt like they had no say in the bank bailouts or health care reform, they voiced their policy opinions through the only means they had: They got mad, and fought back. In the process, the partisan divide grew.
So how to fill this gap, and invite citizens to participate to a greater degree in policy decisions? A group called the Bipartisan Bridge says we could institute a part-time direct democracy -- where citizens vote directly on issues -- through a national referendum: "Although it should be used very selectively, a national referendum could provide our electorate an opportunity to vote on certain issues that are of the utmost significance to our society, and on which most Americans are well informed." In other words, all citizens would get to vote on a handful of the most significant, most visible issues. This would both allow for a truer form of democracy, and in giving voters an outlet for their opinions, perhaps prevent some of the partisan backlash that occurs when citizens feel helpless about the direction of the nation.
6. Aim for a No-Party Democracy: Okay, if you thought the last one sounded utopianist or politically infeasible, then perhaps you'd best skip over this one -- it may be pie-in-the-sky, but it offers some intriguing fodder for thought: Abolish the party system altogether, and form a non-partisan democracy, or a no-party democracy. Hell, it's one way to end bipartisanship. In this kind of democracy, elections are carried out without reference to political party, and candidates are voted in entirely on their merits. Even electoral campaigns aren't allowed -- the system is designed to make personal merit the sole determinant in voting. It sounds radical, but it has some sturdy precedents: Ancient Greece, for instance, was a nonpartisan direct democracy, where certain citizens voted directly on issues.
In fact, some historians argue that according to Federalist No. 10 (the tenth of James Madison's Federalist Papers, which argued for the ratification of the constitution), the Founding Fathers intended the United States to be a non-partisan democracy. The first few sessions of the American Congress were in fact carried out as this sort of democracy.
This post originally appeared on The Utopianist.