Published December 2019
Some readers may remember Congresswoman Connie Morella. I grew up in her district. I used to quip she was a “Republican in name only.” She even voted against impeaching President Bill Clinton. Morella served eight terms before being defeated by then-State Senator Chris Van Hollen.
While I understood the Democratic Party’s desire to bolster its caucus, I thought it wholly unfair that a Representative who consistently put the needs of her constituents above party politics be penalized for having an ‘R’ by her name.
You might say, “That’s politics.” But is this what the Framers had in mind – that a Member of Congress who reaches across the aisle would still be treated as partisan? While I like Senator Van Hollen, his campaign to unseat Morella goes against everything the Founding Fathers intended. The system they created was working, but Maryland Democrats were hell-bent on going around it. This was the first time I voted for a Republican.
Lawmakers have become so dependent on winning as a means of governing, campaigning now undermines lawmaking. As legislators rely more and more on conquering rather than compromise, is it any wonder money has corrupted the process of running for office and voters are abandoning both parties?
Perhaps there’s no better example of this dynamic than gerrymandering. Regardless of party, it is entirely wrong. The point of democratic elections is to hold legislators accountable. When politicians exploit democracy to ensure reelection, they are putting their needs above the needs of the American people.
Democracy is more than a system of government. Its a way of life, a road map for coexistence guided by the principles of mutual respect and fairness. But it’s meaningless if not internalized. Democratic norms are not something you follow only when it’s to your benefit or to manipulate to your advantage. This mindset, “my way or the highway” breeds distrust and resentment, making it that much harder to work together.
It’s a cynical approach largely promoted by one person: Senator Mitch McConnell. There’s never been a more divisive figure in modern politics. McConnell’s actions are, simply stated, undemocratic. His efforts to block witnesses in Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial is a classic example of this.
I’ve heard McConnell only cares about one thing: remaining Senate Majority Leader. Despite being labeled the “do nothing Dems” by President Trump, the House has passed hundreds of bills, addressing myriad problems such as gun violence, pay inequality, immigration, climate change, and domestic violence. As Senate Majority Leader, McConnell has unilaterally blocked every one from reaching the senate floor for a vote.¹ Meanwhile, he oversaw the appointment of 102 conservative federal judges in 2019, more than twice the annual average over the past three decades.²
Democracy was never meant to be practiced this way. Consider the premise behind Congress. Senator McConnell represents one perspective in one state. His colleagues have been elected to represent other perspectives in other states. If for no other reason, McConnell’s Democratic colleagues deserve consideration because they are advocating for the wants and needs of fellow Americans.
Whether legislators like it or not, they have to want to work together more than winning. This may sound idealistic, but it’s actually quite practical. As Abraham Lincoln wisely said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Since the Civil War, I can’t think of a more existentially perilous time for our country than now.
How hard can it be to lead this way? What kind of human being regards success as getting his way rather than building alliances? In reality, it takes more skill to seek common ground and build coalitions. Rather than being guided by democratic norms, McConnell treats them as tools he can take or leave. He blocks or selectively enforces regular order to suit his purposes.
As a psychotherapist for 27 years, I have come to appreciate how imperative good communication is, but also how complicated. When I work with families, I teach 15 different “principles” for constructive communication. Good communication requires skills, like driving, which must be learned and practiced.
Obviously, lawmakers appreciate the power of communication. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t talk so much!) Unfortunately, their’s is one-dimensional: all defensive. They’re either justifying their actions or trying to persuade others. This is not communicating. In fact, these are roadblocks to communication.
One of my principles is same scene, different script. The content of a discussion may change (i.e., gun reform; reproductive health; immigration) but the underlying dynamics – how people interact – stays the same. Members of Congress repeat the same dysfunctional patterns (scene) because they’re too busy arguing over policy (script). In Mitch McConnell’s case, the dynamic involves demonizing Democratic colleagues to gain power.
To demonstrate my point, I’ve included a video of Dr. Fiona Hill, an expert in Russian and European affairs. It is a brilliant example of diplomacy, the art of negotiating while maintaining good will. You have to admire the delicate word choice, empathy, trust, and self-control it took to respond as Dr. Hill did to this Congressman – even though he tried to stop her from speaking.
These are the skills Senator McConnell lacks, and the country is suffering mightily for it. Clearly, McConnell doesn’t understand the power that comes with trust, empathy and good will. Nor does he care about the strain his limited skill-set puts on his colleagues and the country. I know this because, if McConnell did, he’d be putting these skills to use.
America, take heed: changing the power differential will never be enough. The problems plaguing our country – war, climate change, healthcare costs, gun violence, opioid epidemic, suicide, poverty, declining education, unpaid leave for child/eldercare, loss of manufacturing jobs, election interference, illegal immigration and so on – will not improve until Congress fundamentally changes its discourse.
Unfortunately, that will never happen while Mitch McConnell is Senate Majority Leader. Of course, he’s welcome to prove me wrong.