Pulling Back from Partisanship

School has started, 2018 campaigns are kicking off, and interim studies are being conducted - it's a typical fall at the Oklahoma State Capitol. This is the time of year is typically when the thrashing tide of partisan pressure recedes and we begin to see calmer heads prevail as the rhetoric on both sides of the aisle attempt to take on a more collaborative, almost hopeful tone through the winter. But this year is different. This year, the legislative leadership pushed through a revenue bill that, as expected, the state's Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional. This year, we've had a steady stream of legislators and other Capitol employees resign from their positions, many due to scandals involving ethics violations and criminal sexual misconduct. This year, the legislature has to go back into special session in order to fix the $215 million budget hole created by the aforementioned unconstitutional revenue bill.

As we stand on the cusp of that special legislative session, the familiar frustrations and stress from the spring begin to re-emerge. The finger-pointing, snark, and dueling press conferences at the Capitol are rekindling the feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and apathy among voters throughout the state.

Back in the spring, I heard the phrase "This year was so much worse than usual" from dozens of legislators, lobbyists, and advocates this summer. But why was it so bad? Was it due to carryover from the presidential election (and the ongoing political discord at the federal level)? Was it was the dominance of one party in the Oklahoma legislature? Was it was the reprehensible actions of a few individual legislators? Was it was just because there was so much focus on one high-stakes issue (i.e. yet another enormous budget shortfall)? Regardless of cause, one thing is clear: a whole lot of voters were a whole lot more frustrated with our state government at the end of May than they were when session began. I don't know anyone inside or outside the Capitol who walked away from session feeling good about how things went down.

This summer I've also heard another phrase being tossed around: "post-partisan." The term refers to an environment where legislators from both parties work together for the causes and bills that are best for the state as a whole, where they do that work without blaming, grandstanding, playing political games, or otherwise disrespecting one another, and where party affiliation is an association but not a definition. Sounds nice, right? Post-partisanship isn't a new idea in American politics - The Atlantic wrote about it during the 2008 presidential campaign, and The Washington Times penned a piece shortly after that election as well.

My hunch is that many of the people who feel like the legislative session was terrible are the same ones who desperately long for members of our various political factions to come together in some sort of post-partisan, let's-find-a-way-to-work-together way. Honestly, I've never heard anyone say they want our political system to be more partisan and divisive. Even hard-core members of each "party base" have expressed concern that the level of vitriol being spewed isn't helping fix anything - they, too, recognize that it's making things worse.

Voters feel like the guy in the middle - perplexed and disappointed at the kill-or-be-killed showdown between political parties.

Voters feel like the guy in the middle - perplexed and disappointed at the kill-or-be-killed showdown between political parties.

A couple of months ago I attended a "Public Budget Hearing" hosted by the Oklahoma House Democratic caucus in the House chambers at the State Capitol, and although the invitation was extended to all Oklahomans - explicitly including the opposing caucus - there was nary a Republican official to be found. Nor did we see any state senators from either party. Likewise, the "working groups" formed by Republican leadership in the House lacked much in the way of Democratic involvement. Now, this lack of cooperation and teamwork isn't surprising, but it is still disappointing.

What if things were different? What if, in the case of the budget hearing, members of both parties and both chambers had come into the room, some sitting on the House floor and some up in the gallery, sitting there with the rest of us, listening to regular, everyday Oklahomans find the courage to get up and articulate exactly how the state budget affects them on a personal and professional level. I hear from voters - from both parties - complain that the legislature "either doesn't listen or doesn't care." 

It doesn't have to be this way. There are a large number of legislators and other statewide elected officials who long for a post-partisan world just as much as many of you do. I mean, we're not just talking about far-off Washington, D.C. here - we're talking about right here in our home state, where our legislators live near us and work and eat and shop in the same places we do. You can meet them, shake their hand, and sit down to get to know them. Ask what matters most to them, ask why they vote the way they do, ask what their ideas are for improving our state. Find out where they want to see our state in five, ten, or twenty years. What do they envision? Tell them your side of things, too. Help them understand what matters to you, as a constituent. Look for common ground and build a relationship from there.

Regardless of party affiliation, we're all Oklahomans. C'mon Oklahoma, let's fix this!