How deep will the partisan divide become before we say enough?
by Doug Goodman
Are we witnessing the downfall of our society and oblivious to the fact? Over the past several years a new level of distrust, fear and outright hate has infected almost every aspect of our daily lives. This increasing tribal mentality is not based on racial differences, economic status, community location or age. It is founded on our political differences.
What has caused this? I do not believe we woke up one morning and decided anyone with a different opinion is evil. Elected officials did not decide on their own that taking extreme positions and ending all collaboration was the key to re-election. The media did not force anyone to “buy” biased reporting. In other words, who knows what made it all come together. But it did.
Polls have found that political party affiliation and the accompanying presumed opinions on issues influences who we keep as friends, how we treat our co-workers, whether we trust or respect our neighbors and our view of strangers. Partisan differences are the most divisive issue in our nation. The most recent Pew Research poll in December 2017 found 86 percent of those questioned believe there are very strong or strong conflicts between the political parties.
Most in the country are concerned about our economy. In 2016, Harvard Business School found that the political divisiveness that prevents our governing institutions from reaching consensus and implementing solutions is the biggest impediment to economic progress. In a follow-up study in 2017, they concluded that if politics was an industry it is destroying itself by stifling competition.
Recent polls also show that most voters want politicians to work together to solve problems rather than maintain the dogmatic party line. So why are things getting worse? Could there be a systemic reason? I believe there is.
Voters are showing their frustration through their voter registration. Every month, the percentage of voters in Nevada registered as nonpartisan continues to grow while the Democratic Party loses voter share. Until recently, the Republican Party was also losing voter share but due to a targeted voter registration drive, the party appears to have reversed that trend and is now also gaining share. At the end of 2017, over 21 percent of active registered voters in Nevada were registered as nonpartisan. When adding in those registered with the Independent American, Libertarian and Green Parties, nearly 28 percent are not registered to vote as either Democratic or Republican. These numbers are almost 10 percent higher among those 18 to 34 years of age.
Despite the voter registration trend, the political environment is getting worse. This is where it becomes systemic. Elected officials and candidates tend to focus on what will get them elected. The “what” are the 20 percent or less of voters who vote in the publicly funded closed partisan primary elections. These voters also happen to be party loyalists, dedicated to following the party line without deviation. The additional 40 to 50 percent of voters in the general election then end up “settling.” Because winning the next election is the priority, elected officials have no incentive, are in fact rewarded, for not collaborating, working with and reaching consensus with the opposing side to achieve meaningful results. It doesn’t matter how many lobbyists and advocates pressure elected officials to vote in their favor, unless lawmakers are willing to talk with one another, no one will win, no issue will be resolved.
We don’t need to look towards Congress for evidence although the recent federal government shutdown is a prime example. This continual partisan exercise is the result of Congress not following the Budget Control and Impoundment Act of 1974 that sets deadlines for formal budget resolutions and passage of all appropriation bills. The budget deadlines set forth in this act have not been met since 1994, 1996 if including spending bills. This inability of Congress to perform its most fundamental task because of partisan differences and an unwillingness to collaborate for the benefit of the nation continues the downward spiral.
In Nevada, we only need to look at events over the past year. As campaign season starts, we are seeing the negative ads and websites. We see the Democratic Party roll out a mascot meant as an attack on the U.S. Senate majority leader. We have the city of North Las Vegas embroiled in a partisan power struggle. We have recall attempts of three state senators; two Democratic and one nonpartisan, initiated by Republican operatives based solely on a differing of opinions.
During the 2017 legislative session where the Democratic Party was in control, over five times the number of Republican sponsored bills failed to pass the first house by the deadline compared to Democratic sponsored. The number was nearly six times as great for bills that did not get a hearing. For comparison, at the same point of the 2015 legislative session when Republicans controlled both chambers the number of bills not passed was nearly equal; 50 percent Democratic bills vs 43 percent Republican. One of the GOP bills killed by the Democratic leadership was a bill that would have reversed a provision from the 2015 session, restoring the right of over 60 percent of voters to have a say in who represents them. Since no explanation was given, one can only assume the decision to kill this bill was based on its Republican sponsor (the bill had three Democratic co-sponsors).
We need to stop this downward spiral. We need to make systemic changes so that the focus of lawmakers becomes all voters not just the 20 percent vocal party loyalists. We need to reward elected officials who work together for the betterment of all Nevadans, not those who only focus on a small party base.
Doug Goodman is Founder and Executive Director of Nevadans for Election Reform.