The Declaration of Independence articulates America’s vision of a just government: one that secures to all the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Government at its best fosters the rules of just conduct that enable individual success and societal well-being. To realize this vision, government upholds the rule of law and gives other institutions (such as community, education and business) the space they need to fulfill their roles while fostering a system of mutual benefit. This provides people with an environment in which to flourish, enabling everyone to discover, develop and apply their gifts. Insofar as America has pursued this vision, our country has made incredible progress.
Without a beneficial government, individual and societal success is impossible.
Yet beneficial government is not what our country has. A recent Pew survey found a mere 24% trust government to do what’s right. Overwhelming majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents hold these views. How did we get to a place where close to everyone agrees that government is broken?
The issue isn’t government by itself, but rather what we as a society expect it to accomplish. When we see a problem, our first impulse is typically to ask government to solve it. Rather than finding cooperative solutions, we separate into camps to fight over how government can best address our problems. Instead of starting from a point of unity, we start from a place of division.
Welcome to the crisis of partisanship.
More than 200 years ago, George Washington declared that political parties are likely “to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” Time has proven our first president correct.
Whether at the local, state or federal level, politics is almost always divided between two warring sides, both of which constantly try to damage and defeat the other. They try to arrange policy and politics to their maximum advantage, and to their opponents’ maximum disadvantage. The focus is not on public policies that empower people and improve their lives; it’s on political victory at any cost.
Partisanship is a form of tribalism, which is exactly what it sounds like: different tribes duking it out for supremacy. Where once the tribes used weapons of war, now they use television ads and microtargeting. The motivation remains the same, however: to ensure that your tribe comes out on top — and, equally important, that the other comes out on the bottom.
This isn’t just zero-sum, it’s negative-sum, and it makes it very difficult to get good things done in government. It shifts attention from policy to politics, from empowering people through good policy to beating up the other side. Instead of working together, people and parties focus on staying in control, propping up allies and punishing or scapegoating opponents. The political incentive is to let problems worsen, lest a solution hurt them or help their opponent.
Is it any wonder that America’s biggest problems keep getting worse?
On foreign policy, the country is embroiled in endless war, costing thousands of promising young lives, wasting trillions of dollars and making America less safe and the world more chaotic.
On health care, people are getting priced out of the treatments they need, while quality care keeps getting harder to find, despite decades of policies meant to solve these problems.
Government spending continues to set records. Thanks to spending sprees by both parties, the national debt is already more than $30 trillion and growing by more than a trillion dollars a year.
Corporate welfare is growing in size and destructiveness. The economy is more rigged by the day. And on immigration, a broken system stays broken, condemning people who want to come to America and contribute.
The list of worsening problems goes on, and whatever the issue, the us-versus-them mentality that dominates politics all but assures that nothing positive will happen. What’s good for the parties today is usually the opposite of what’s good for Americans.
Worse, partisanship is pushing the parties toward extremes and convincing people to hate their fellow Americans. More than a fifth of each party views the other as “evil.” Can America survive as a country if our citizens despise each other?
For me, this question is far from academic. I have tested the proposition that partisan politics can cure what ails society. My conclusion: Partisanship doesn’t work.
I avoided two-party politics like the plague from the 1960s to the 2010 election cycle. The “Congress Critters” and presidential candidates who often came calling seemed like nice enough people — some of the time — but I didn’t see the point of engaging with them. Koch Industries has never been in the business of asking for favors, and outside of the company my focus was mostly on education.
With time, however, it became clear that helping people required more than educational efforts in schools, universities and think tanks. We also needed to change the policies holding millions back. So the philanthropic community that I founded got involved in electoral politics. We bet on the “team” that seemed to have more policies that would enable people to improve their lives. You only get two choices in our system, so we chose the red team.
We should have recognized right from the start that this was far too limiting. The “team approach” means that to get the policies that you think will help the country, you have to take all the other policies your team is offering, even if you disagree with many (or most) of them.
Your options winnow further once your team tries to make the other team look bad. You oppose the other party’s policies, no matter how good or bad they are, simply on the grounds that they’re the other party’s policies.
Even if your team wins the election and gains power, it’s usually not a victory from a policy perspective. You’ve already narrowed the list of things that are possible. With the other team still fighting you at every step, many of those policies are pushed out of reach. By that point, you’ve spent so long fighting the other team that the idea of collaboration seems like a sick joke.
Meaningful achievements — policies that enable more people to flourish — become difficult and rare in this environment. Your team has an incentive to build barriers instead of knocking them down. The whole system pushes beneficial government out of reach.
The quick version is that partisan politics prevented us from achieving the thing that motivated us to get involved in politics in the first place — helping people by removing barriers. I was slow to react to this fact, letting us head down the wrong road for the better part of a decade.
Boy, did we screw up. What a mess!
Once this became clear, we changed our approach. Far from withdrawing from politics, our philanthropic community decided to get more involved. But instead of picking a team and figuring out who would work with us to get good policy passed, we decided to skip the first step and do a better job of the second. We now work with people on the red team, the blue team or no team at all! We now go issue by issue and work with anyone, regardless of political party.
In short, we abandoned partisanship and chose partnership instead. This simple distinction has made all the difference.
At its most basic level, partnership is what Frederick Douglass meant when he said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and nobody to do wrong.” It means adopting an attitude of mutual benefit and working with others to achieve policies that will empower people. You may disagree with someone on 99% of issues, but that 1% offers you the chance to join forces. Instead of demanding all or nothing, partnership treats people with the respect they deserve and recognizes that, whatever our differences, we always have things in common.
The hardcore partisan will tell you that partnership is impossible — a feel-good, naïve pipe dream. Their argument boils down to a simple assertion: help their preferred party win and society’s problems can be fixed. No cooperation necessary.
Yet decades of evidence prove this doesn’t work. Albert Einstein had a word for this: insanity! You should ask those who advocate for business as usual in politics: Why should we expect things to be different after the next election?
The lie of partisan tribalism is that your gain must come at my political expense. It is inherently exclusionary, a project of division. Partnership, by contrast, is naturally inclusive, encompassing more and more people from different backgrounds. It’s a project of addition. It means we can all win together — and the bigger the “we,” the bigger the win.
I’ve seen it happen. I have participated in these kinds of bottom-up movements, achieving policy victories that once seemed impossible.
In 2018, Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass a historic bill that eliminated some of the worst injustices in the federal criminal justice system. The First Step Act makes it possible for thousands of deserving people with criminal records to rejoin society and start to realize their potential. It was a remarkable achievement because, for the previous three-plus decades, the two parties refused to work together to fix the criminal justice system. Instead, they preferred to accuse each other of being “soft on crime,” while enacting “tough on crime” policies that locked away more people for longer times. There are few better recent examples of partisanship making big problems worse.
The federal reform marked the culmination of a yearslong process. It began when small groups of people realized they shared similar views, despite their differences on other issues. They wanted to move beyond the false choice of tough-versus-soft on crime — and instead show the benefits of being smart on crime.
The coalition that began to form included people who had no reason to work together under the tribal mentality — prosecutors and public defenders, small-government conservatives and progressive activists, religious groups from many faiths, and many others. Together, we made the case for change. And we also committed to watch each other’s backs when the politics of tribalism came after any one of us.
The first signs of progress occurred at the state level. Both Republican and Democrat lawmakers saw the diverse coalition and began to abandon the tribal mentality, and from the mid- 2000s to the mid-2010s, 35 states passed empowerment-based reforms of one kind or another.
It worked. Over that same decade, state incarceration rates fell by 6.5%, and the federal rate by 8.3%. America experienced double-digit declines in both violent and property crime, demonstrating that less incarceration does not mean less public safety. Another benefit was the money it saved taxpayers. Best of all, people who had been locked away got second chances.
The movement grew larger and louder, until Congress couldn’t ignore it. The First Step Act passed in late 2018 by overwhelming majorities of both parties, with a vote of 87 to 12 in the U.S. Senate during a time that has been described as one of the most divisive in our country’s political history. People said it couldn’t be done just days before the law passed. They were wrong. Partnership turned criminal justice reform from an impossibility to an inevitability.
That same year, America saw similar progress on other important issues.
Veterans health care is one. In the mid-2010s, the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system was overrun with scandal. The government-run hospitals were found to have secret lists meant to cover up how long veterans waited for care. In 2015 more than 200 veterans died on waitlists in Phoenix alone. Across the whole VA system, more than 100,000 veterans were forced to wait too long for treatment. It was later found that, between 2010 and 2014, as many as 49,000 veterans may have died before the VA processed their applications for medical treatment.
The crisis was real, but tribalism pushed a solution out of reach. Republicans and Democrats attacked each other instead of uniting to give veterans the care they had earned. But while the politicians did nothing, regular people and veterans demanded better. Folks from across the political spectrum began working together to make transformative change a reality.
It worked. As more people demanded change, politicians put aside their differences to make it happen. Two major pieces of legislation passed with bipartisan support. The first brought accountability to the VA, allowing for the quicker firing of staff who mistreat veterans. The second brought real choice to veterans health care. America’s veterans are now empowered to choose the health care provider that’s best for them, public or private. Partnership, not partisanship, made these achievements possible.
The same is true with another health care policy: Right to Try.
Most people will never hear about this issue, but for some, it’s a matter of life and death. Imagine your spouse or one of your children is diagnosed with a terminal illness. There’s no known cure. But there may be another option: treatments that showed promise during clinical trials but are still years or even decades away from final approval. For someone with only months to live, that’s too long. And yet the law prevented them from accessing what could be their last hope.
About 70% of Americans agree that terminally ill patients should have the freedom to try these experimental treatments that could save their life. Even so, for many years partisanship prevented action. Democrats didn’t want to give Republicans a policy win, and Republicans benefitted from the gridlock.
That changed once the American people got involved. One way they did was through the story of a man named Matt Bellina, a U.S. Navy pilot with a young family. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which gradually robbed him of his ability to move, eat, speak and breathe. His only chance to survive and stay with his family beyond a few years was to get access to promising treatments still under development. Our philanthropic community helped tell Matt’s story.
As more Americans learned of the issue and spoke up, politicians took note. The groundswell of support pushed long-stalled legislation across the finish line in mid-2018, and the final law bore Matt’s name.
Look closely at these three examples — criminal justice reform, veterans health care reform, and Right to Try — and you’ll see a roadmap to overcoming partisanship and transforming government from the bottom up.
First, find people who share your passion and are willing to work with you, even if you disagree on other issues. Have their backs when the partisans attack and ask them to have yours. If you choose your partners based on the “R” or “D” next to their name, you’re limiting your chances of success. Remember Frederick Douglass’ wise advice to “unite with anybody to do right.”
Second, celebrate success. Partnership unites people who, under a tribal mentality, would be enemies instead of allies. This is progress by itself. Highlighting how your differences don’t prevent you from uniting will inspire others to do the same. They see that they can work together even with those they greatly disagree with on other issues.
Finally, topple the barriers. The more people get involved, the more others will want to get involved, and the more politicians will rise to the occasion. Elected officials in both parties will realize that voters want results, not more partisan wrangling, and that doing the right thing will help them politically. When good policy becomes good politics, we can expect politicians to finally do the right thing and empower people instead of holding them back.
Every policy victory that comes from partnership will help shift the parties themselves. Right now, the parties are inclined toward ever-worse extremism and tribalism. They will continue down that path until enough people demand a different approach on more and more societal problems.
Is there a destructive policy that motivates you? A wrong you want to right, people you want to help? You can try to do so by pulling others down in a tribal, partisan way, even though that approach is already tearing America apart. Or you can give partnership a go. You’ll be amazed at the allies you attract, what you accomplish, the people you empower. And, like me, you’ll wish you’d taken this path all along.
In the buildup to criminal justice reform, my philanthropic community worked with a man named Van Jones. A former political appointee under President Barack Obama, Van once organized a protest outside of a conference I hosted. He disagreed — and still does — with many of the causes I support. I’m critical of his point of view on a number of issues.
Yet as we came to see, none of our disagreements were as important as the area where we agreed. We shared a desire to remove the in- justices in the criminal justice system. Once we realized this, we began working together. After the First Step Act passed, Van recorded a video to share the story of our work together, in which he said: “You got awesome people, and beautiful people, on both sides who don’t know what to do together, and if we start working on that, a lot of this stuff is going to get better.”
Then he said words I will never forget: “We started working together to get some other people free, but the reality is, those of us who worked on this, we got some freedom.” That freedom, he says, should enable us all “to see the country differently and do more good.”
Van’s words ring true. I intend to keep following this wisdom. For the sake of America, I hope you do, too.
From “Believe in People: Bottom-up Solutions for a Top-down World” by Charles Koch and Brian Hooks. Copyright 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.