Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Desperately seeking solutions

By Bill Kraus

Facing the prospect of telling a class of college students about the state of electoral politics focuses the mind.

Everyone has a long list of the things that have gone wrong.

Everyone also has fingers to point in multiple directions at a long list of culprits who are responsible for the current state of dysfunction.

The students themselves know that the three 'P's--Polarization, Partisanship, even Populism--are wreaking havoc with the representative government we all think the founding fathers envisioned. That the system is broken.

What they expect to hear is how to fix it. I have a simple answer for them: I don’t know how.

There are many fixes to pick from and they cover the spectrum from the free market/libertarian right to the full public funding/fully regulated left.

There is no consensus. The people don’t agree. The parties don’t agree. The courts don’t agree. And above all the incumbents who we are taught to look to for solutions to public problems really don’t agree.

I take that back. Given the state of inaction and inattention by these same incumbents it is possible to conclude that most of them either don’t think there is a problem with the political processes or don’t think the problem is consequential enough to deserve a high place on their priority lists.

The reason we are immobilized then is the classic one of everyone agreeing that there is a problem until a solution is proposed at which time the solution becomes the problem.

Daniel Yankelovich (yes, that Daniel Yankelovich) told an audience in California recently that Americans have always had a strong practical streak that took over whenever the country faced a large, insurmountable problem. He expects it to kick in again. It hasn’t yet.

Wisconsin’s Bill Kellett used to tell us to keep our eye on the squirrel. The squirrel is political dysfunction. Until that is fixed, we can’t even get to the other squirrels.

These are/were optimistic people driven by old-time pragmatism, which is missing, and focus, which is as well.

It is time, to use Lincoln’s phrase, to think anew.

The students may not get what they came to class for. I am hoping I will get what I am coming to class for: new thinking, new ideas, heightened concerns. Even a route to a workable representative government for this incredibly diverse--and still creative--country?

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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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