The moving tributes to Sen. John McCain often included a question asking who will fill his role as a champion of bipartisanship. Commentators assumed the role would have to be filled by someone in Congress. Few seemed ready to take up the mantle.
I have another place to look for bipartisan leadership: look to us, the citizens.
I know that sounds preposterous. The U.S. Elections Project reported that about 100 million eligible voters didn’t bother to vote in the 2016 election. At the funeral for Aretha Franklin, Jesse Jackson decried what he observed: “Long lines at the death of the icons and short lines for voting, something is missing.”
Obviously, we can’t look for citizen leadership in reaching across the aisle from the tens of millions who don’t even bother to vote. But we must keep looking because bipartisanship will be required if we are to seriously address reversing climate change, preventing gun violence, overturning Citizens United, ending global and domestic poverty, and preventing nuclear war with North Korea. These are all challenges that require leadership at the federal level and need the continuity that bipartisanship can sustain, regardless of who is in the majority in Congress.
So where will we find citizens capable of reinvigorating bipartisanship? Small armies of volunteers are taking a closer look at what it takes to return to civility in Congress and implementing what they’ve learned.
Citizens Climate Lobby, a group that began working for a carbon fee and dividend more than seven years ago, is seeing unpredictable progress reaching across the aisle with dozens of Republicans and Democrats joining a House Climate Solutions Caucus. But how? Tom Moyer, a volunteer who works with Republican Rep. Mia Love of Utah said, it’s impossible to convince anyone of anything if you fundamentally don’t like them.
“If you walk in thinking they’re an idiot and evil, you’re done from the start, it doesn’t matter how logical your position is,” he said. “You have to put yourself in a place where you can find something to respect [in them].”
Respect is a critical ingredient of bipartisanship. I led a “lobby day” training session for American Promise, a group focused on enacting a 28th Amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, one cause of the growing flood of money in politics. I told trainees they needed to find something to thank their members of Congress for, even if it was on a totally different issue. “But you don’t know my member of Congress,” one participant complained. “There’s nothing they’ve done that I appreciate.”
“That’s why this is a spiritual practice,” I replied. “Look deeper. You’ll find something.”
Respect and appreciation sound anachronistic these days, but we see the futility in the alternative.
Earlier this year, President Trump called for a 31 percent cut in 2019 funding to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In the 16 years since its inception, the Global Fund and its partners have saved 22 million lives, distributed nearly 800 million insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria, and treated and tested more than 17 million people for tuberculosis.
Volunteers from RESULTS — who engage neighbors, write letters to the editor and visit members of Congress year after year — got 162 House Republicans and Democrats to sign a letter to top appropriators urging them to reject the cut. Both House and Senate committees have agreed.
They couldn’t have gotten 162 Republicans and Democrats to sign a letter rejecting a president’s deep cut to a foreign aid program with cold calls. They had to have already built relationships through appreciation and respect.
Any of us can do the same, with persistence and the support of the right organization.
Citizens can grasp the torch of bipartisanship and demonstrate something else John McCain heralded: working for a cause greater than oneself.
This op-ed originally was published in the Sun-Sentinel on Sept. 6, 2018.