Wagner: Increased polarization breaks down trust

September 15, 2017

In his statement announcing his decision not to run again for Congress, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Pennsylvania Republican, referred to himself as “a member of the governing wing of the Republican Party” who has “worked to instill stability, certainty and predictability in Washington.”

Meanwhile, over on my side of the aisle, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who does not identify as a Democrat, is refusing to publicly disavow the attacks his supporters are making on actual Democrats for not being “pure” enough on issues such as single-payer health care.

Last month, I explored the litmus test pro-choice Democrats apply to those within the party who are pro-life—and why litmus tests generally do not make for a collaborative debate space. You are either with us or against us, and there can be no middle ground or nuance. 

The very real outcome of such litmus tests is what we are seeing right now on both sides of the aisle: Those in the middle either give up or move further left or right to mitigate the sting of criticism.

But wait, what about that time earlier this month that President Trump and Democrats came together to pass a short-term extension of the federal debt limit and government funding, along with natural-disaster-relief funding for Hurricane Harvey and other impending storms? The bill passed quickly with bipartisan support, and the president signed it into law. Doesn’t that prove that those in the middle can find a way to get along to get things done?

Technically, yes, but it literally took a natural disaster to get them all in the same room, and the final deal further highlighted the ideological rift among Republicans, 90 of whom voted against it in the House.

The whole thing made for a lovely, bipartisan photo op. But in reality, we’ll be right back in the same position three months from now talking about the debt ceiling and a potential government shutdown. Will those Republicans who felt blindsided by their president’s negotiating with Democrats come back to the table, or will they wonder if the art of the deal will once again leave them out in the cold?

Dent, in his retirement statement, talked about his commitment as a public servant to the basics of government: keeping the lights on, avoiding default. 

“Regrettably,” he wrote, “that has not been easy given the disruptive outside influences that profit from increased polarization and ideological rigidity that leads to dysfunction, disorder and chaos.”

Ultimately, what’s missing from politics today—and the only thing that can beat back those outside influences and restore order where disorder currently presides—is trust.

Easily shattered and hard to regain, trust allows us to inch out on a shaky limb and find common ground with those on the other side. It’s not just trust that they won’t immediately shove us out of the tree, but also that we will have some support from folks on our own team. 

Only then, one step at a time, on issues large and small, can we begin to restore faith in a dysfunctional system that presently rewards those on the extremes and leaves the rest of us wondering if there’s a place for us in politics at all.•

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Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and vice president of communications at EdChoice. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


Recent Articles by Jennifer Wagner / Special to IBJ

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