Outposts of Rationality in Our Great Partisan Divide

U.S. politics isn't all poisonous. You just have to leave Washington to realize that.
March 2017
Places like Traverse City, Mich., are coming together on issues that matter to their citizens. (Flickr/Andrew McFarlane)
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

It’s official: The people who publish the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced in late December that the most searched-for word on its website in 2016 was “surreal.” Though the word attracted heavy traffic all year, the big spike in interest came the day after the election. It reflected a country trying to make sense of an outcome “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.”

Here in Washington, I’ve been reflecting on what it means for Governing’s mission. When we launched this magazine in the latter days of the Reagan administration, our purpose was to document and explain an ongoing significant shift in our federal system -- the ascendancy of states and localities -- that the national press had largely missed. We debated a bit about the relative importance of states versus cities and counties, but basically we felt we were on the mark.

In the almost three decades Governing has been chronicling this story, the landscape has changed considerably. The politics of many states now more closely resemble those of D.C., with rigid ideology and hyperpartisanship dominating an increasing number of legislatures. Moving down the food chain to cities, towns and counties, the search for solutions has tended to be more pragmatic and less ideological. But increasingly, there is friction up and down the system -- states at odds with the feds or with their own cities and counties, or both.

Still, there are plenty of surprises. My wife and I spend part of the year in a rural part of northwestern Michigan, about 40 miles west of Traverse City. Six weeks after the 2016 election, commissioners in Traverse City voted unanimously to go completely green -- switching over to wind, solar and geothermal energy sources to power all city operations within the next three years. Surrounding Grand Traverse County had just voted Republican, for a presidential candidate who shows no interest in moving away from fossil fuels. But that did not seem to matter.

States are doing some interesting things as well. In late December, Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio vetoed a bill passed by the GOP legislature that would have weakened the state’s clean energy requirements for power companies. Later this year, the Maryland Legislature is expected to override a gubernatorial veto of a green energy bill similar to the one that passed in Traverse City.

On a wide variety of other issues, states will find themselves at odds with the Trump administration or with their localities. Immigration probably is the most emotional and politically sensitive, health care the most complex and unpredictable, and infrastructure the least partisan and divisive -- depending on how it is addressed.

The Democrats will be playing defense, since they only control the governorship and both houses of the legislature in five states -- their worst numbers going all the way back to the Civil War. So not surprisingly, they’re focused on rebuilding what some insist is a long-neglected political infrastructure. California, now the center of Democratic opposition to Trump among states and localities, has hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for both legal and political advice on how best to counter the Trump administration and begin rebuilding the party. Holder’s top priority will be winning more state legislative seats nationally before the next round of redistricting after the election in 2020.

But all of that is just the latest version of an old political story. There is something else going on here. One reason cities, counties and their metro regions have emerged as more serious players in our federal system is their growing ability to attract disparate forces within their communities in common purpose, avoiding all the political potholes that trip up others at the state level.

There’s a good example up here in northwestern Michigan, where a group of local residents has formed a grassroots, nonpolitical organization called Advocates for Benzie County, aimed at improving the quality of life in a postindustrial area now propped up by tourists drawn to the Sleeping Bear Dunes park along the coast of Lake Michigan. Its members come from the local Rotary Club, various churches and social service groups, but their goal is well defined: to address the root sources creating various interrelated problems rather than just treating symptoms individually. At least 27 different organizations in the county are trying to address the consequences of poverty, but until now no one has been focusing on a strategy to eliminate it.

Taking this holistic view, the group now convenes community forums, bringing in outside experts, key local employers, various state agencies and others to search for more basic and meaningful solutions. It seems to be catching on, and early this year the local paper, The Benzie County Record Patriot, named the group’s founder as its Citizen of the Year.

Efforts like this one and its counterparts across the country offer hope for crossing our great partisan divide. They are part of a global trend that urban scholar Bruce Katz of Brookings recently described as a “new localism,” in which “cities become the vanguard of problem-solving and social progress in the world, fueled by new norms of growth, governance and finance, and powerful public, private and civic networks.”

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com