by Bob Inglis
Recently 200 former members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, gathered at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia to sign Issue One’s Declaration to Renew the Founders’ Promise. In that declaration we called on fellow citizens to put country above party, to replace the big money in politics with small-dollar contributions; to draw reasonable districts that create competitive elections; to defend the importance of a free media; to demand adherence to the highest ethical standards; and to return to “regular order” in the legislative process whereby bills are freely amendable.
These former members of Congress were speaking with candor and with less rancor than when we ourselves were still in Congress. Admittedly, there’s a grace that comes from mellowing, and there’s truth in the old adage that statesmen are dead or defeated politicians. It’s also true, though, that it’s inspiring to consider the Founders’ dream and to be in the very buildings in which they conceived of liberty enshrined in law.
These recent conversations in Philadelphia were quite different from the ever-elevating shouting matches in Washington and across America. One side blames the other and vice versa. Thanks to the ease with which insults can fly on social media, we no longer listen to each other or strive to bridge the divide. We seep in that anger, the toxic brew fueling grudges, protests, boycotts and slurs.
But outrage isn’t enough. The angrier we get, the angrier lawmakers get on our behalf, becoming our gladiators in the blood sport of identity politics. That outrage doesn’t propel progress; it kills progress.
Americans have the power to say: Enough is enough. Give us solutions more than outrage.
We often complain that members of Congress don’t listen to us, but they listen very carefully in poll after poll, thread after thread on social media, and rant after rant on talk radio and talk TV.
Outrage and fear threaten our ability to govern ourselves. Warring camps of Rs and Ds even have un-civil wars within their own camps. Strangers on social media go at each other as though they’re mortal enemies rather than countrymen. We take up sides and expect our leaders to be the loudest and the meanest among us.
In the midst of my last race in 2010, I met with four, senior, well-to-do couples. All of them were avid Fox News viewers and talk radio listeners. In previous election cycles they’d contributed thousands of dollars to my campaigns. In the 2010 cycle they hadn’t given a dime. An hour and a half into this meeting, one of them spoke for the rest of them. “What don’t you get, Bob?” he asked me. “Barack Obama is a socialist, communist, Marxist who’s trying to destroy the American economy so that he can take over as dictator. Health care is part of that plot, and he wants to open up the Mexican border and turn us into a Muslim nation.”
The next day back in Washington, I found then-Republican Minority Leader John Boehlert on the House floor. “You’re a better politician that I am, John,” I started. “What would you have told those folks last night?”
“I would have told them it’s not quite that bad,” Boehner said.
“Whoa, John, that’s what I told them,” I said to Boehner. “It didn’t work.”
And then I went on to say something that was sadly prescient. “John, if you’re going to lead these fearful, frenzied people to the cliff they’re running towards, you’re going to have to run out in front of them and yell over your shoulder, ‘You don’t know the half of it. If you knew what I know about Barack Obama, you’d really be afraid!’”
Sadly, it’s that amplification of the outrage that we’ve come to expect from our politicians. Bernie Sanders—the guy who yelled at us throughout 2016—was the guy with the juice, whereas Hilary Clinton seemed boring. Donald Trump called for fisticuffs at his rallies, making Jeb Bush and other stable leaders look weak.
There may be some catharsis in choosing gladiators over solutions, but our problems don’t go away. Climate change, for example, worsens because the laws of geoscience and chemistry aren’t altered by tweets.
Meanwhile, policies based on bedrock conservatism could harness the power of free enterprise while being acceptable to many progressives. America could lead the world to solutions on climate change. We can get there. On climate change and many other issues we just need to ask our leaders for solutions rather than scapegoats, for light rather than heat, for courage rather than outrage.
In short, we need to renew the Founders’ promise.
Bob Inglis, a Republican, represented Greenville-Spartanburg in the U.S. Congress from 1993-1999 and 2005-2011. He now directs republicEn.org, a community of conservatives committed to free enterprise action on climate change. He is a member of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus.