Is the Senate broken?
The New Yorker has run two articles in the past few months that, taken together, make you wonder about the possibilities of visionary change coming out of our political system– one, “The Empty Chamber,” by George Packer, talks about how many senators see more benefit in obstruction than legislation, and the other, “As the World Burns,” by Ryan Lizza, explains how one of President Obama’s top priorities, climate change legislation, died a slow and painful death in the Senate. It all reminds me of the quote about the inadvisability of watching either laws or sausages being made
Clearly, there’s a lot wrong with this picture. Some of it was intended to be wrong with the picture–the Senate wasn’t meant to be an efficient, representative body, although the filibuster and various other later innovations have made it even less efficient than it started out. There are times, however, when it is possible to wring change out of the system (I happen to think FCNL is pretty good at it). And the thing I keep thinking about is not that we should all give up and go home. I keep thinking about how politics is less about ideas and more about people than many people think.
In another much-discussed New Yorker article about the potential of social media to change the world, Malcolm Gladwell writes that “High-risk activism…is a ‘strong-tie’ phenomenon.” In other words, taking the kinds of risks that lead to major change is scary, hard, and requires you to have support from other people who are committed to the same thing. Gladwell also sees the need for hierarchy, for someone who can keep everyone else in line and keep them from chickening out when the going gets tough. Given that Quakers have both been at the forefront of many of the high-risk activism of the past several centuries and are notoriously un-hierarchical, I think “discipline” would be a better word to describe what’s required.
It’s not just high risk activism that’s personal, though. Getting a group of senators to vote the same way can be personal, too. One of the points that’s stuck with me from Lizza’s article is how much the personalities of and relationships between the senators involved contributed to the final outcome. An in-person lobby visit, the most personal interaction between a member of Congress and a constituent, is also the most effective way to influence a member’s position.
I think sometimes people are scared of lobbying because they think they aren’t an expert. They feel like they won’t be able to give all the facts, and they won’t be able to answer the questions, because they just don’t know enough about the issue. Information is important, but in many ways the relationship is the precursor to whatever influence that information will have. As technology has allowed our interactions to become less and less personal, it’s even more important to find a way to use the power of personal relationships and interactions as a way of influence.
This doesn’t mean that you have to like your members of Congress, or that members of Congress have to like each other. It doesn’t mean that the mere fact of showing up in person will lead to a new utopia. It does mean that the exercise of talking and listening to one another is an important glue that makes it possible for us to move forward together, even if we don’t move forward as far or as fast as any one of us wants. When two people have that “strong tie” where they each have an idea of what motivates the other, it’s a lot easier to figure out how to bring everyone together– even in the U.S. Senate.