How Campaigns Make Our Government More Partisan

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How do campaigns contribute to creating a more partisan government?

Some obvious answers come to mind immediately: the partisan animosity ginned up over the course of a campaign is difficult to turn off once election season is over; outside advocacy groups and donors pressure candidates to take extreme positions during campaigns that are difficult to reverse; the media focuses on and exacerbates areas of disagreement between candidates--all of these answers do indeed affect how our government operates.

But campaigns also contribute to the partisanship we find in our government in another key way: personnel.

The campaign-to-government pipeline makes sense in many ways. Candidates desire loyal staff that ascribe to their views, and indeed, that is what a democratic government requires. After election, elected officials-in-waiting have just weeks to hire staff and prepare for the job, so they often turn to those who helped to elect them in the first place. 

However, the qualities and skills that make for a good campaign staffer do not always make for a great government employee. In elections, the end goal is to win. In government, the end goal is public service.

And what draws people to campaigns is not always the candidate and the full range of his views. Often, campaign staffers are driven by a narrow set of issues, and actually disagree with the candidate on others. They also tend to be zealous, which helps them to justify the long hours and low salary. They are constantly advocating for their candidate's view, and rarely forced to consider seriously the opposing view. In politics, the goal is 50% + 1; in government, your constituency is the 100%.

Generally, the campaign-to-government pipeline does not affect the most senior officials. However, campaign staffers land the mid-level jobs. They are usually the first to analyze an issue; write the memos; draft the releases; set the agenda for meetings and offer the initial input on who is in those meetings.   

Now many campaign staffers make the transition and make it well (I hope and think I did), but everyone is human and staffers have their own perspectives on the best way forward. And so a bias that enters our bureaucracy when jobs are filled primarily through campaigns is that highly devoted partisans take important decisions in institutions that are supposed to represent a broader range of people.

So how do we address this bias? Here are four practical steps we can take:

  1. Create alternative institutions that provide qualified applicants for political appointee positions in government

These institutions exist in the policy world--the Heritage Foundation and the Center for American Progress are examples, though it should be noted that both organizations are partisan themselves. However, it is in the more cultural government positions--communications and correspondence, outreach, etc.--where most campaign staff land, and which require understanding and navigating diverse perspectives and viewpoints. These are also the positions that be used to either spur or quell the culture wars, and bring understanding or incite division. Just look at the latest press releases from either side of the aisle in Congress to see the effects of partisanship in official, government communications. 

     2.   Participate in political campaigns and parties

Not everyone can give up six months or a year to work in a political campaign, but we need to start viewing campaigns as a civic duty as much as other forms of public service. Our political parties are representative institutions. When we reject investing in them, because we don't agree with their every stance, we actually starve them of their ability to reform. If our candidates are only hearing from big donors and well-funded advocacy groups, those are the actors they are going to respond to in their campaigns. If you are tired of a dogmatic, divisive politics, contribute to and participate in our parties and campaigns. 

    3.   Make your voice heard in government

Similarly, even if your candidate doesn't win, we still have a responsibility as citizens to make sure our government hears from us. And it is our government. Time and time again while I was in government, I saw elected officials and policymakers respond to an organized group of citizens calling for common-sense action on issues like adoption and human trafficking. I was able to be a part of some of those actions. 

So write your congressman. Sign up to engage with The White House Office of Public Engagement. Stop by your mayor's office. Let those who represent you know that you are there to support them when they are right, and that you will let them know when you think they are wrong. 

    4.   Encourage government employees

Finally, the vast majority of government employees are tireless, hard-working people providing enormous service to their nation. And they often take the brunt of our partisan politics. One of the greatest encouragements to me when I was working for The White House would be the numerous times that someone I knew didn't support the President politically, would let me know they were praying for me and supported me. 

Can you provide the same type of encouragement? If you're a Democrat, find a Republican staffer on twitter and thank them for working so hard with the holidays coming up. If you're a Republican, do the same for a Democratic staffer. 

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Yes, politics will always have big debates and strong contrasts, as it should: Voters deserve a real choice. And once elected, politicians have the right to act in line with their campaign promises.

But our politics can also be about something else, something bigger: Creating a better life for all Americans. 

Let's participate in making that the story of our politics.