Did you ever think that someone who disagreed with you was a dork or an imbecile? Didn’t you think that they were totally ignorant and uninformed because they didn’t understand the facts? And you called them simply stupid? Of course you did. But why? The reason is that you didn’t know them personally.
If you know a person as a living, breathing human being, you treat them differently. If you disagree, you are careful not to offend them even though your differences may be vast. You are generally tactful and courteous.
And so it is between the two sides in American politics. Republicans tend to listen to Fox News and believe, without question, whatever is broadcast. And Democrats listen to MSNBC with its liberal bias. But how many times do Democrats tune in to Fox or Republicans listen to MSNBC? Not often. But if they did, they might learn important news that they would not have known by remaining in their echo chambers.
Congress is, perhaps, more polarized than at any time in modern history. Each side sees the other as the enemy, a predator, purposely trying to destroy our democracy. The Democrats see wealth going to the rich and the Republicans see freeloaders gobbling up unearned resources.
There is an old saying about not criticizing another until you have had a chance to see things from his viewpoint. Wouldn’t it be great if Congress could do that?
Believe it or not, it is possible; it was once that way.
According to former Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Texas, when Democrats controlled the House in 1980, Speaker Tip O’Neill could have insisted that any bill coming out of his chamber have a majority of Democrats supporting it, but instead, he told the new president, Ronald Reagan: “We will cooperate in every way.”
The reason is likely related to the fact that in those days, members of Congress lived in Washington and got to know one another.
Former Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf said, “A lot of it was done after hours. They got together, they broke bread, they told stories, and they did things that I think helped us do things to make some accomplishments.”
When they were elected, they bought or rented homes and moved their families to the capital. What difference did that make? All the difference in the world. This allowed members to socialize with each other on weekends because their workweek was Monday through Friday with an occasional two-week recess to tend to constituents at home. There was not enough time between Friday and Monday to go back to their districts.
It’s very different now. Members of the House are paid $174,000 a year, and it would cost $2,000 a month to rent or $1 million to buy a Washington house. The current salary is not sufficient to cover such costs. And since airline travel is much more available today and paid by congressional expense accounts, members do not move to Washington and do not get to know people of the other party as living, breathing human beings. They work about 18 hours a week in Washington.
If I were emperor, I would create a housing and moving allowance adequate for Congress to rent a house in Washington and to move families there. There would be required attendance at social occasions such as picnics, trips to Six Flags and group discussions on subjects other than farm subsidies.
Now there isn’t time to get to know their fellow lawmakers, and I believe that something as simple as a picnic could lead to alliances, relaxation of this paralyzing polarization and to new ideas. Sadly, I am not emperor.
Marty Solomon is a retired University of Kentucky professor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.