You might say, “That’s politics.” But is this what the Framers had in mind – that a Member of Congress who reaches across the aisle would still be treated as partisan? Shouldn’t voters – not party leaders or political pundits – decide when they’re dissatisfied with their elected representatives?
Of course, Americans do cross party lines, which takes us back to the Morella scenerio. While now-Senator Chris Van Hollen is doing a great job, his campaign to unseat Morella goes against everything the Founding Fathers intended. The system they created was working, but Maryland Democrats were hell-bent on going around it. This was the first time I voted for a Republican.
Lawmakers have become so dependent on winning as a means of governing, there’s barely a distinction between them. Perhaps there’s no better example of this dynamic than gerrymandering. Regardless of party, it is entirely wrong. The point of democratic elections is to hold legislators accountable. When politicians exploit democracy to ensure reelection, they are putting their needs above the needs of the American people.
Democracy is more than a system of government. Its a way of life, a road map for coexistence, guided by the principles of mutual respect and fairness. But it’s meaningless if not internalized. Democratic norms are not something you follow only when it’s to your benefit. Nor is it something to manipulate to your advantage. This mindset, “my way or the highway” breeds distrust and resentment, making it that much harder to work together toward a common good.
This cynical approach has been largely fueled by one person: Senator Mitch McConnell. There’s never been a more divisive figure in modern politics. His actions are, simply stated, undemocratic. His recent move to prevent witnesses in the Senate trial is classic McConnell.
I’ve heard McConnell cares about one thing: remaining Senate Majority Leader. Despite being labeled the “do nothing Dems” by President Trump, the House has passed hundreds of bills, including ones on background checks for firearms, equal pay, immigration reform, climate change, and domestic violence. As Senate Majority Leader, McConnell unilaterally blocked them from even reaching the senate floor for a vote.¹ Meanwhile, the Senator oversaw the appointment of 102 conservative federal judges in 2019 alone, more than twice the annual average over the past three decades.²
Consider the premise behind Congress. Senator McConnell represents one perspective in one state. His colleagues have been elected to represent other perspectives in other states. If for no other reason, McConnell’s Democratic colleagues deserve consideration because they are advocating for the wants and needs of fellow Americans. As legislators rely more and more on conquering rather than compromise, is it any wonder money has corrupted the process of running for office and voters are abandoning both parties?
Democracy was never meant to be practiced this way. Compromise, not winning elections, makes policy. As a psychotherapist for 25 years, I have come to appreciate how complicated but imperative good communication is. To give you an idea of it’s complexity, when I work with families, I teach 15 “principals” to communication. It is a skill, like driving, and must be learned and practiced.
Obviously, lawmakers appreciate the power of communication. Otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often. Unfortunately, it’s one-dimensional: all defensive. They’re either justifying their actions or trying to persuade others. This is not communicating. In fact, it’s a roadblock to communication.
I have an expression: Same scene, different script. The content of a discussion may change (i.e., gun reform; reproductive health; immigration) but the underlying dynamics – that is, how Members of the two parties interact – stays the same. They repeat the same dysfunctional patterns that cause division. In Mitch McConnell’s case, the underlying dynamic involves demonizing his Democratic colleagues to gain power.
How hard can it be to lead this way? What kind of human being regards success as getting his way rather than building alliances? In reality, it takes more skill to seek common ground and build coalitions. Rather than being guided by democratic norms, McConnell treats them as tools he can take or leave. He blocks or selectively enforces regular order to suit his purposes.
Whether legislators like it or not, they have to want to work together more than winning. This may sound idealistic, but it’s actually quite practical. As Abraham Lincoln wisely said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Since the Civil War, I can’t think of a more existentially perilous time for our country than now.
To demonstrate my point, I’ve included a video of Dr. Fiona Hill, an expert in Russian and European affairs. It is a brilliant example of diplomacy, the art of negotiating while maintaining good will. You have to admire the delicate word choice, empathy, trust, and self-control it took to respond as Ms. Hill did to this Congressman – even though he tried to stop her from speaking.
These are the skills Senator McConnell lacks, and the country is suffering greatly for it. Clearly, McConnell doesn’t understand the power that comes with trust, empathy and good will. Nor does he care about the strain his limited skill-set puts on his colleagues and the country. I know this because, if McConnell did, he’d be putting these skills to use.
America, take heed: changing the power differential will never be enough. The problems plaguing our country – war, climate change, healthcare costs, gun violence, opioid epidemic, suicide, poverty, declining education, unpaid leave for child/eldercare, loss of manufacturing jobs, election interference, illegal immigration and so on – will not improve until Congress fundamentally changes its discourse. Unfortunately, that will never happen while Mitch McConnell is Senate Majority Leader. He’s welcome to prove me wrong.