With the State of the Union address a fading memory, the clumsy and damaging battles over sequestration, a House hearing on the charitable deduction (among many others already under Congress’ belt), and preparation for many battles in the making on the deficit, budget, and policy matters, Washington’s engine of government is definitely revving up. It must be asked, however: is there any hope that our political leaders might find a way to work together civilly on the very big challenges they and we must face together?
There are those who say that the divided government created by the electoral results promises more gridlock. I say: let’s give this a little more thought. From this sometimes ringside seat, I agree that the year-end battles between House Republicans and the White House were fierce and difficult. Many forums continue to reflect the deep divide and, might I add, the animosity. Just a week ago, I met with a conservative policy analyst and television commentator. He spoke of sympathizing with Republicans who had no desire to accept invitations to the White House, given the disrespectful way he and they felt they were treated in the President’s and his most senior advisor’s comments about proposals advanced by Republicans. He declined my suggestion that a group of responsible people from different sides of the ideological spectrum might consider getting together to find common ground or, at the least, better understand one another. He went on to say that, "those kinds of meetings are about people on the left condescendingly telling us why we are wrong, don’t care about people, and are not committed to fairness and justice. They think if we listened well to their arguments we would change our minds. It does not begin to occur to them that just maybe we think differently about these issues."
Anecdotes can be offered from both sides to describe the chasm and yet, we have observed some modest movement toward bipartisan policy on a handful of issues, including protecting women from domestic violence, immigration reform, universal background checks for handgun ownership, and same-sex marriage rights. Is there a way to encourage more such efforts? To this Washington resident, the answer appears not initially to exist here in America's capital. It is more likely to be found in the voices of ordinary citizens across the U.S. who want something different for their communities and from their government than recent years have delivered.
A lot needs to happen to bring all sides together to ensure there is broad support for a given set of proposals. But with public will behind these reforms, many public officials are more likely to take their lead from their constituents. For example, with 80 to 90 percent of those surveyed supporting background checks for handgun owners in multiple opinion polls, most public officials certainly have the political cover to respect the electorate’s wishes and vote in favor of some of the proposals.
Is there a lesson here worth applying to other areas in need of policy action, where political wars are replaced by bipartisan efforts to address the nation’s most pressing challenges? Is there a way to persuade our public officials in Washington, D.C. that the victory lies not in thwarting the other side but in bipartisan solutions helpful to the American people? I am reminded of Pyrrhus, the powerful Greek king and general who battled the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. The storied warrior Hannibal himself ranked Pyrrhus the greatest military commander of all time. Yet he is best known to us today for his sad benediction on his "victory" at the Battle of Asculum, which took the lives of 3,000 of his soldiers, including many of his officers. "Another such victory," he said, "and we shall be undone."
True victories happen when large numbers of people care enough about an issue to express their opinions, and those who govern take note. And who better to rally the groundswell of voices than civil society organizations dotting every community in America? Our sector brings to the public square millions of people impassioned about the causes and programs we champion. They support the educational and economic opportunities nonprofits provide to families in need; the vital development of individuals and communities encouraged by our health, religious, cultural, and educational institutions; the scientific advances; and the increased appreciation for the democratic values of justice and individual liberty. Who better to make the case for attentive and respectful discourse followed by joint action by lawmakers than the ordinary and extraordinary people who make up this community of voluntary organizations?