You hear it all the time: The real source of gridlock in Washington is the American people: Deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans simply reflect the political split in the public.
But the public is not nearly as polarized as it is made out to be and much less so than Congress – and herein lies a way out of today’s hyper-partisanship in Washington.
I’ve been deeply involved with public-opinion research – polling and focus groups – for more than 20 years. Relatively small numbers of Americans place themselves at the ends of the political spectrum. And when they are presented arguments for and against various policy options, in many cases most people find merit in both sides. They tend toward solutions that integrate competing values rather than choosing one side and then fighting for it.
Americans also show an ability to deal with tradeoffs and make the hard choices that Congress finds so difficult. The Program for Public Consultation, which is affiliated with the University of Maryland and which I direct, finds that they can go much further than Congress in dealing with the long-term fiscal problems of the deficit and Social Security.
And the choices Americans make are not necessarily in their narrow self-interest, but show a concern for the common good. For example, when asked to propose tax rates for different income brackets as part of an effort to balance the budget, respondents did not favor their own income bracket. To help save Social Security, younger Americans who would be affected by a proposed increase in the retirement age were just as willing to raise it as older people whose retirement would not be affected by it.
The Founders believed that the “sense of the people,” as Alexander Hamilton put it, would naturally align with the common good and that when elected leaders got at loggerheads, the people should, as Thomas Jefferson said, play the role of “arbiter.”
The shapers of our democracy did not simply mean that the people should vote in elections. Elected leaders were expected to get to know and be guided by the sense of the people on an ongoing basis.
But today the means people have for communicating with their representatives in Congress – letters, calls, town hall meetings, emails – have been swamped by organized interests and no longer allow the sense of the people to come through with any clarity. Gerrymandered voting districts, meant to be safe for incumbents, also block the larger mix of voices.
Americans are well aware of this problem. Polls show that overwhelming majorities of Americans are frustrated because they believe the people are not being heard, and as this has happened, confidence in government has plummeted. They also believe that if the people were heard and had influence, government would work better.
I agree with them. That’s why I’ve helped form a new organization – Voice of the People (VOP.org). Supported by Republican and Democrat former members of Congress, academic, business, and civic leaders, and by several foundations, this nonpartisan nonprofit seeks to create a “Citizen Cabinet” in every congressional district in the country. It would be available to advise every representative in the House and every senator.
Using scientific sampling, each district’s cabinet would have at least 275 members and would precisely mirror the district’s population. Cabinet members would participate online for 9-12 months. Those without Internet access would have it provided to them. Every Congress member would thus hear from a representative sample of their constituents.
Citizen Cabinet members would be briefed online on current issues before Congress, presented policy options and arguments for and against each one, and then make their recommendations. All of the materials would be carefully vetted with congressional experts on both sides of the aisle to ensure that the factual briefings are accurate, fair, and balanced and that the pro and con arguments for the policy options are the strongest ones each side can make.
The process that the Citizen Cabinets go through would be put online so it would be completely transparent. All Americans could also go through the process, to become better informed and then to more effectively communicate their views to their representatives.
When we tested the idea of the Citizen Cabinet in focus groups and polls, people overwhelmingly endorsed it and expressed confidence that it would help government move beyond polarization and gridlock.
We have also met with numerous congressional offices and found a very positive response to this idea. Members of Congress do want to know what their constituents think and like the idea of hearing considered views. A Citizen Cabinet can also give them support when they want to stand up to the pressure of special interests.
However, we should not fool ourselves. There is a lot of inertia in Congress and it is not easy to get a broken institution to fix itself. That’s why it will be necessary to mobilize citizens to voice their demand for the people’s voice to be heard through a Citizen Cabinet. And that is what the organization Voice of the People will be seeking to do (see steps here for what you can do).
In the last few decades, special interests, gerrymandering, and a sharply divisive media and blogosphere have drowned out the vast middle that makes up American opinion. We have the tools to revive it. As James Madison said, “the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought...[to] prevail."
Steven Kull is president and founder of Voice Of the People and director of the Program for Public Consultation affiliated with the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.