Evan Bayh had it Right

            In the normal course of events Senator Bayh’s decision last month not to seek almost certain reelection to his Indiana post is now old news, “discount rack” material. But the reasons the Senator advanced for his choice are enduringly significant. Indeed, one of those motivations, offered in a commentary in the New York Times on February 21, 2010, served as something of a foundation for the Senator’s other concerns. Overall, Bayh pointed to institutional, individual, and for want of a better word, democratic reasons for his decision, but the foundation of all of these is a deterioration in willingness among lawmakers to treat differing views concerning the public weal with anything other than contempt. Many on both sides of the aisle, in both the House and Senate, treat colleagues holding perspectives other than their own as enemies to be defeated rather than fellow lawmakers who happen to have different views concerning public policy issues.

            The Senator focused on the role of personal relationships as a palliative to this poisonous gridlock now characterizing Congress. Bayh lamented the fact that so many senators no longer can think beyond tactical and immediate political advantage as they consider all (literally) things, including their personal relationships with their colleagues. It now seems naïve he argued, to talk about how senators in the past could disagree vehemently in debate and then go to an opponent’s home for dinner. In short, senators in the past recognized the legitimacy of alternate points of view and could separate debate over different conceptions of the public weal from how they regarded their fellow legislators. Yet, as Bayh pointed out, and he is hardly alone in his view, this is increasingly not the case. Instead, senators routinely vilify one another for perceived partisan or ideological advantage and interact only sparingly with colleagues who do not share their point-of-view.

            Given an already existing atmosphere of hyper-partisanship, it is difficult to establish trust if one has little or no opportunity to interact with one’s opponents, except to seek to portray them in ways resulting in perceived partisan advantage. Indeed, that orientation can corrode any real possibility of developing capacity to bridge differences, a necessity in a heterogeneous nation. And far from being trivial, personal relationships in Congress (and indeed in organizations of all sorts) are the basis on which institutional action and possibility are constructed. Bayh remarked that it is exceedingly difficult to work with another senator when you believe he or she will depart their conference with you and head to the studio to record an attack ad against your reelection or to a fundraiser at which you and your beliefs will be held up to ridicule or worse. It is difficult to imagine in such circumstances how one could trust enough even to risk developing a relationship deeper than the animus built on ideological rhetoric.

            And to the extent this description is accurate, it results in a siloed congressional institution whose members are arrayed against one another as if armed enemies, speaking and listening principally to fellow travelers, while posturing to their specific constituencies—which are most readily mobilized by high octane rhetoric vilifying “the other” with whom they disagree. In brief, what works to secure democratic mobilization of bias works against effective institutional action, which in turn depends on personal relationships and a willingness to accept the possibility of diverse views of the public good. Bayh was right. Personal relationships are the keystone to change in our current governance situation. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine what incentives can be employed actually to improve this corrosive scenario absent a change in the public attitudes to which they ultimately are attached.