How to change Washington

Washington isn’t working, the thinking goes. But what if that sentiment is wrong? What if Washington is working pretty much as it is set up to do?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
War veteran Andrew Grant goes door to door in Orangevale, Calif., as he campaigns for a seat in Congress.

Who is going to clean up Washington?

That question might be the strongest bipartisan sentiment in the American electorate today. Confidence in Congress is near historic lows, and polarization is at historic highs, research shows. Washington isn’t working, the thinking goes, and someone needs to fix it.

But what if that sentiment is wrong? What if Washington is working pretty much as it is set up to do?

On the surface, Ann Scott Tyson’s cover story this week is about the surge of veterans who are trying to change the tone in Washington. Touting themselves as bridge-builders and problem-solvers, they’re running for Congress on a promise to do things differently.

But the fact is, they can’t do a single thing unless the American people elect them to do it.

On one hand, that seems like a “no duh”-level statement. But it’s not. The American political system is struggling with dysfunction and polarization because the most-engaged American voters have demanded that it be that way. Yes, the influence of political money is a serious concern, as are efforts to disenfranchise voters through state voting laws or gerrymandering. But studies show that the people who are most active in politics – the most reliable voters – are also the people who are the most polarized and therefore the people who least want compromise. If a democracy’s goal is to reflect the will of those who vote, then the United States should be getting rave reviews. Washington is pretty much doing exactly what voters are telling it to do.

Enter the veterans. The fact is, they’re not really promising something new. For decades, Congress was chock-full of bridge-builders. As of 2018, however, Americans have voted most of them out of office. It’s gotten to the point where a spoof headline in The Onion, a satirical publication, joked: “New Breeding Program Aimed At Keeping Moderate Republicans From Going Extinct.” And it’s not just a Republican issue. The last moderate “Blue Dog” Democrat in the Senate, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is one of the most vulnerable incumbents this year.

Let’s just say it has not gone unnoticed in Washington that bridge-builders and problem-solvers have become an increasingly endangered species.

That’s what makes the veterans so interesting. First, they’re taking aim at the current win-at-all-costs approach, in which compromise is seen as a liability. But more deeply, they embody a new way of thinking about bipartisanship. In the past, bipartisanship in Congress was often greased by “pork” – pet projects that gave legislators political cover for making a tough vote. Or it happened amid the cronyism of smoke-filled backrooms.

These veterans are not calling for a return to those days. Rather, they’re holding up bipartisanship and compromise as virtues in themselves – not needing pork or secrecy. They’re asking us to actually embrace the idea that getting everything we want is neither politically possible nor desirable.

For veterans, who trusted their lives to those around them and to the virtues of teamwork, this might seem natural. For voters, it is a challenge to embrace their own agency in “fixing” Washington.

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