Former U.S. Senator from Maine Olympia Snowe spoke about polarization in the United States on Tuesday night in a Chambers Lecture Series event.
Snowe began her political career in 1974 in the Maine House of Representatives, winning her late husband’s seat at the age of 26. She later served in the Maine State Senate, before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978. She served for 16 years in the House and then began her tenure as a U.S. Senator in 1994, a position she held until December 2012. In total, her career in government totaled nearly 40 years.
Her speech was characterized by her insistence that progress cannot come when Congress is so polarized. She discussed how Congress became so polarized, and what should be done to diminish this problem.
In 2013, she published Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress, which aims to explain how the Senate and Congress in general work.
“More than ever, we need to have these conversations in order to have a better understanding of one another and of the issues and problems that are confronted in our states,” Snowe said. “What can we do to make the government work again?”
Polarization will not diminish in the short term, she said, and bipartisanship must occur outside the institution. She said her travels across the country led her to believe that change must occur from outside the government, not within. In her travels, she also observed widespread fear that this partisanship would become an institutionalized part of our culture. She said that she reassured those concerned that it is possible to move past partisanship.
“Yes, we can defeat the machinery of partisanship and we can bridge the political divide, in spite of what the polarized voices of the political classes have you to believe,” she said.
Snowe used the budget as an example of how the bipartisan system has broken down in recent years. Former U.S. President George W. Bush was able to pass the No Child Left Behind education legislation through bipartisan collaboration. She claimed that this maximized the potential of public office.
Currently, the bipartisan process has broken down and devolved into a series of winner-take-all votes. The process is now more about sending a message to one’s political base than it is about policy, she said.
“Nowhere is it more indicative that the process has broken down then when you look at the budget process,” Snowe said. “The largest economy in the world is operating without a budget.”
This is no way to govern a great nation, she said. She compared the lockdown in Congress to a Democratic ship and a Republican ship passing in the night-one is in the Atlantic Ocean, and one in the Pacific, she said. The two parties are separated on keystone issues-taxes and long-term debt-which has resulted in negligence on critical issues. That led to the worst post-recession recovery in history because of this uncertainty in Congress, she said.
“We should be far beyond where we are today when it comes to economic growth and job creation,” she said. “But it’s because Congress is feeling the open-endedness and uncertainty.”
The uncertainty is due to increased party separation in the government. In 1982, The National Journal determined that there were 344 members of the House of Representatives who came between the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican. At the end of 2012, there were 13. Today, there are four of these bipartisan representatives. There are zero senators who fall into that category, she said.
Congress is currently at the highest level of polarization since the end of Reconstruction, she said.
“Suffice to say, the red states are getting redder and the blue states are getting bluer,” she said.
Snowe went on to say that change is still possible, even though approval ratings of Congress are at an all-time low. She has created a list on her website, called Olympia’s List, that supports and recognizes more moderate elected officials. She supports those candidates who are willing to work across political lines, she said.
“We are a representative democracy,” she said. “We can demand bipartisanship, and we’ll get it.”
Bipartisanship is essential to reach policy goals and make progress. The recent extreme polarization has hindered the country’s progress, she said.
“Bipartisanship is not a political theory,” she said. “It’s a political necessity. It’s essential to getting things done. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians. We can make the changes that are essential and necessary.”