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To bridge the political divide, focus on the middle

From St. Paul to Washington, D.C., the narrative that has been driving political stories lately is that of gridlock and lack of compromise, of division and partisan lines that will not be crossed.

In Washington, debate has ground to a halt, while bills are being crafted by a select few, and rank-and-file members of Congress go on TV and complain that they aren’t being included. Town halls across the country have become breeding grounds for shouting matches and protests. The chaotic end to another legislative session here in our own backyard was punctuated by sleep-deprived snark, a lack of trust all around the table, and now a fight that has to be decided by judges. 

Shannon Watson

If real compromise and coming together was the outcome of late-night sessions and closed-door negotiations, then maybe I’d be OK with it. But more often than not, consensus isn’t the goal. Winning is the goal. When our legislatures are staffed with people who classify the other side of the aisle as the “enemy” and their main goal of any bill introduction is winning instead of governing, when roll-call votes are forced as campaign-lit traps and floor speeches are made to grandstand and provide sound bites for memes and the 10 o’clock news, we’ll never have the kind of government we want and deserve.

The pendulum swings

Building a stable foundation of public policy should be the aim of our elected bodies, but instead we have a tug of war that happens every few years as the majority pendulum swings back and forth. Getting the furthest right or the furthest left checks on the to-do list becomes more important than getting things done — like paying for transportation infrastructure or education or health care, or encouraging entrepreneurism and small business growth.

This toxicity starts well before swearing-in ceremonies; it starts before campaign season, when parties recruit and screen candidates. I’ll tell you a secret: State parties and coordinated campaign committees don’t care as much about individual races beyond the math to a majority number. Sure, some potential candidates bring attractive strengths (like the ability to fundraise beyond their own race, or appeal to a particular segment of voters) that make them more investible, but majority rule is always the end game.

So here’s a radical idea: The next time you go to the voting booth, stop worrying about majorities and start electing moderates.

I can hear it now, the screams of, “but my extremist is the only thing keeping their extremist in check!” The fact is, moderates can stand up to extremism as well as anybody else can, most of the time way more effectively because their goals are different, and they’re not biding their time just waiting for their turn to push extreme policy provisions through.

You can help

You can help to elect moderates no matter how deep red or dark blue your district is. If all of your neighbors think the way you do, maybe give a shot to the person who meets 90 percent of your ideological criteria rather than 100 percent. If you can live with your choice, don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough. You might have to vote for someone from a different party (gasp!) if you live in a district that is demographically different from your preference, but think about it: If your representative is definitely going to be someone of the other party, do you want him or her to be a moderate or an extremist?

For example, if you are a Republican living in downtown Minneapolis, your most effective vote for City Council wouldn’t be the Republican candidate – it would be for the most moderate Democrat on your ballot. The Republican mathematically probably doesn’t have a chance to win, but a moderate Democrat could. On the flip side, if you’re a DFLer living in a ruby-red county, backing a moderate Republican over the sacrificial DFL lamb would be the best use of your vote.

A more sustainable, stable government

With moderates in charge, there would be easier negotiation, more compromise, and fewer “poison pills” that dictate party-line votes or destine a bill for a veto pen. If constituents supported moderates at the polls, there would be no reason for lawmakers to hold out for the most extreme of positions. If moderates were the majorities, the pendulum wouldn’t swing quite as widely on policy positions from year to year. At best, that would equal a more sustainable and stable government. At the very least, it might cut down on the grandstanding.

Start paying close attention to the names on your ballots. Reward moderates with your vote, then plan on holding them accountable to standards of compromise and civil negotiation. Remind our public servants that you, not their caucus, are their most important constituency.

Shannon Watson is the founder of Definitely Someday, a firm that helps normal people plan for a future run for office. She has 20-plus years of experience in the political arena, working on local and statewide races in Kansas, Colorado and Minnesota, as well as working for the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Minnesota Senate. Shannon has a bachelor’s degree from Wichita State University and a master’s from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She lives in St. Paul.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/29/2017 - 11:41 am.


    I’m not sure there’s much of a middle anymore. I thought this Huffpost article really summed it up. Either you care about the poor and the sick, or you don’t.

  2. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/29/2017 - 12:22 pm.

    We have a two party system.

    That is the very definition of Partisanship. Here’s a better idea, elect people who BELIEVE in Government and want to make it work for the people, rather the people who run on destroying it.

    I read a good analogy today, say you want to renovate and old house, fix it up and make it nice, but another party wants tear it down. There really isn’t a compromise between the two, is there. Its either or. That’s what we have now, one party believes in Government and wants to make it work, the other thinks Government is the problem and wants to destroy it. Remember the immortal words of St. Ronny Reagan: The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

    Republicans don’t believe in Government and they work very hard to prove that it doesn’t work, by under funding programs that do, by appointing incompetent managers (Heck of a job Brownie,) and trying to kill popular Governmental Programs (Decades long REpublican battle to destroy Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) So if you want good government that works, stop electing people who don’t think it should work.

  3. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 06/29/2017 - 12:43 pm.

    There are no more moderate Republicans active in Minnesota politics.

    Over the past fifteen to twenty years, moderates have been driven out of the party with vicious primary attacks from the right wing of the Republican Party (aka, Tea Party-ites). This push to the right wing has been massively funded by the Koch brothers and their ilk (also responsible for planning the gross-out gerrymandering we’ve seen that permits hard-right Republicans to dominate state legislatures and many congressional seats even without a majority of the popular vote).

    This past week, in fact, Senator Mitch McConnell had to call President Trump and tell him to call off a right-wing Trump-supporter PAC ad attack on Republican Sen. Heller who was not supportive of the unconscionable cuts to Medicaid in the so-called health care bill. That’s Republicans eating Republicans who dare to believe that government can provide benefits to the common person.

    It would be lovely to have moderates. It would also be lovely for Republicans to own up to their principal role in the non-governing we see. We don’t have gridlock, when Republicans refuse even to bring bills to the floor, to consider a president’s Supreme Court nominee, or to consider speaking with Democrats and Independents. Democrats in Congress, for example, have not had one word to say about what to do with the Affordable Care Act,, and the awful “thing” that Ryan and McConnell have come up with is all their mess.

    The Democrats have still retained a pretty wide gamut of ideological opinions (see: the difference between a Sanders and a Clinton) What Republicans have done, though, is demonize all Democrats as extremists because they’re not far-right Republicans.

  4. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 06/29/2017 - 12:53 pm.

    What middle?

    The repubs have moved way way way to the right and the establishment Dems are effectively moderate repubs.
    The Dems have moved too far and there is no logical middle of the road with repubs.
    Doubt it…consider this healthcare bill by them that cuts taxes for the wealthy by $772 Billion, kicks 22 million off the rolls, causes premiums for middle aged people and those with preexisting conditions to skyrocket and will cause (according to articles in the LA Tims and Chicago Tribune) 28,000 to 100,000 to die each year.
    The middle of repub land is way out of any form of logical reach.

  5. Submitted by Petey D on 06/29/2017 - 03:22 pm.

    Politics isn’t sports

    It seems telling that the author spends 800 words telling us how we should decide to vote, without engaging on a single issue or policy matter. Seriously, not one. Clearly those 20 years in the political arena haven’t translated to an actual set of values; as presented here, politics is simply a question of good sportsmanship.

    In reality, politics has a human cost. Housing policy dictates who has a home and who lives on the streets; public health policy dictates who sees a doctor and who dies of a preventable illness; criminal justice policy dictates who walks free and who lives their life in prison. If those issues don’t affect you or your loved ones, then you’re very fortunate; you’re also part of a shrinking minority. If you don’t care about winning, it’s only because you don’t stand to lose.

    Earlier this year, MinnPost reported that Republicans in the legislature were unwilling to provide $1.3 million in funding for a statewide suicide prevention hotline estimated to field 35,000 – 50,000 calls in a year. That’s potentially 50,000 Minnesotans seeking help in life-threatening situations, and the GOP sought to eliminate the funding, all for what amounts to .002% of annual expenditures in the state. We shouldn’t compromise with cruelty.

    Politics is conflict between opposing interests in our society. If we can advance the cause of universal human dignity by building consensus and coming together in compromise, then that’s terrific. But if you can’t put food on the table for your family, or you can’t afford health insurance, it doesn’t matter at all if one set of millionaires in Congress is willing to shake hands with the other set of millionaires. It doesn’t matter! None of this matters. It’s sports radio for grown-up student government geeks.

    “The answer lies in the middle” is not a noble or principled stance, especially for someone ostensibly making a living in the business of politics. And while elite white “moderates” wring their hands about someone being mean on CNN, conservatives are actually playing to win.

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