WHY WE EXIST
We all recognize the intense political polarization in America today – in fact, many political scientists say it is the most polarized in recent times and among the most polarized periods in American political history. It results in dysfunction in our politics and is a major contributor to the inability to address major problems facing the country. This polarization exists at the state level just as it does at the national level.
A need to counteract this polarization and create an environment for bipartisan problem-solving is necessary. Indeed, many observers of politics today hunger for it. Secretly and quietly, many elected officials at the national and state level also long for it, in spite of their heated polarizing rhetoric and behavior. Independent groups and modern technology, driven by their own ideological and financial agendas, often force the better instincts of legislators and congressmen underground in today’s polarized political environment.
Many former elected officials who served in the state legislature or the U.S. Congress do not even recognize the current polarized political environment. For many of them, a more bipartisan approach to solving problems—particularly big and thorny problems—WAS the order of day. In Michigan, for example, school finance reform of the early 90s, environmental cleanup reform of the early 90s, the gas tax increase of 1997, and many other issues were addressed on a bipartisan basis—more to the point, none of those initiatives would have been possible if approached in any other way.
Although the previous paragraph described this earlier environment as more “bipartisan,” that term is somewhat of a misnomer and often misunderstood and misused. We operate in a partisan political system, and partisanship has always been—and will be–a feature of that system. The goal is to find and reach consensus solutions in that partisan system. “Consensus” is a more accurate and descriptive word than “bipartisan.”
The results of the November 2018 election in Michigan emphasize the need for consensus solutions to Michigan’s major challenges. After eight years of total Republican control of both the executive and legislative branches of state government, Democrats were elected to the offices of Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State. Although Republicans kept control of both the House and the Senate, their margins in both chambers were reduced. One-party control of state government has ended and the need for bipartisan solutions to all issues now exists.
The forces and interests that help to drive the current level of polarization have become permanent features of the political landscape, however, and the potential for political and legislative paralysis certainly exists. Term limits have also eliminated any institutional memory of what a different political culture that emphasized bipartisan problem-solving looked like. Countervailing forces are needed–i.e., efforts that demonstrate to policy-makers that consensus policy solutions based on fact and rigorous analysis can be achieved.
Such an organization does exist at the national level—The Bipartisan Policy Center. It was formed in 2007 with four former U.S. Senate Majority Leaders as the founding co-chairs: Bob Dole, Tom Daschle, Howard Baker, and George Mitchell. It is active on a range of national issues, with its mission statement that emphasizes bipartisanship:
“The Bipartisan Policy Center is a non-profit organization that combines the best ideas from both parties to promote health, security, and opportunity for all Americans. BPC drives principled and politically viable policy solutions through the power of rigorous analysis, painstaking negotiation, and aggressive advocacy.”
Although reservations about the use of the word “bipartisan” have been noted, Michigan needs something similar: an organized effort to offer, champion, and promote consensus solutions to public policy challenges facing the state; a place in which partisans can debate, analyze, and come to an agreement and are willing to publicize that agreement; a place from which Republicans and Democrats can demonstrate to policymakers at the state level that sound solutions can attract support from partisans on both sides; an entity that is willing and able to advocate for these consensus solutions; and an institutionalized effort to provide an antidote to those political forces that thrive on political polarization and dysfunctional.
The Michigan Consensus Policy Project was formed to be that entity.