Recent national polls show the historic negative ratings of both 2016 Presidential candidates, while public trust in government at all levels is at an all-time low. Indeed, Illinois is the epicenter for dysfunction in state government. Partisan division and mean-spirited politics are covered daily by the media in our reality TV-driven society.
Yet a silent majority of Americans claim to be fed up with the government gridlock, telling pollsters they’d like to see our elected officials rediscover the lost art of political compromise. What can be done to turn the tide—in both our national and state governments—to bring back statesmanship and thoughtful leadership? We need to begin by developing new leaders who truly understand that bipartisan leadership is the most effective way to govern.
I think I may be the only college professor in America that actually teaches a course on bipartisan leadership. My students at Bradley University learn that over the last 50 years, our national government has been divided between political parties 75 percent of the time in the two chambers of Congress and the Presidency. In order to pass any meaningful legislation, you must be able to reach across the political aisle to garner support. Consequently, if you want to make progress on the most pressing public policy issues confronting our nation, bipartisan leadership is essential.
Unfortunately, this generation of college students has only witnessed the partisan bickering and political stagnation that has consumed our national politics. When they study the bipartisan congressional and presidential processes that led to the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, they learn:
- You must include the minority party early and often in the negotiations;
- Respectful relationships matter;
- The process takes time and persistence;
- Compromise can lead to better public policy because neither political party has a lock on wisdom; and
- Leaders must be willing to put their country before their party.
Excerpts from students’ midterm essay exams this past spring reveal that politically diverse students can grasp the importance of effective bipartisan leadership. William Bessler, a senior and loyal liberal Democrat, stated: “Standing by principles is an honorable action; however, there are many issues in our government that are designed to force compromise which will not occur if leaders cling to rigid ideology without a will to entertain other views. Congress can accomplish a great deal, but this takes a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner with colleagues.”
Similarly, Jason Blumenthal, a senior and loyal conservative Republican, wrote: “Civil servants need to do what is best for the country and let the other side speak and have a voice.” Rebekah Gudeman, a senior and moderate Republican, reflected on the frequency of meetings that took place between the majority and minority congressional leaders to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and stated: “Both sides put the good of the people ahead of the party or themselves, which is something desperately needed in Washington DC today.”
As parents, we teach our children the importance of playing nice in the sandbox. As a country, if we truly want better government, we need to teach future generations of public servants about the importance of effective bipartisan leadership. iBi
Brad McMillan is Executive Director of the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University.