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Harry's Gang: Political parties need to find commonalities

Some people blame the two-party political system for many of our nation’s problems. I can understand why — it seems each party spends more time accusing the other party for everything wrong while taking credit for everything right. It can’t be that way, of course, but that’s what happens when politicians are constantly campaigning rather than serving their constituents.

It’s a real problem. I interviewed longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar once on “Harry’s Gang.” It was quite an honor, and I prepared thoroughly, even calling local leaders to see what issues they wanted me to ask him about. Jeff Korpi, the CAT-7 coordinator, was amused. He said, “It doesn’t matter what you ask him; he’s going to say what he came here to say.” Jeff was right. I’d ask Oberstar about local forestry issues, and he’d skillfully turn the conversation back to the Social Security amendment he had just gotten passed in his committee. By that time, he was pretty powerful and didn’t really care what a local cable access host was asking him; he was busy running the country. So I can’t really blame him, but I did want to know the answers to my questions.

It’s gotten much, much worse in the past 20 years. It seems like elected leaders represent only half their constituents nowadays — the ones that voted them in. Elected leaders in Washington (and, increasingly, in St. Paul) seem to vote only the way their party wants them to vote, which is often just exactly the opposite of what the other party wants to do, even if it’s something that is good for your constituents — you know, the ones that put you in office in the first place.

But I don’t think the two-party system is to blame. It seems to me the problem is within the parties themselves, because each party tends to value the loudest voices, rather than the best ideas. The extreme fringe on each side makes the most noise, and gets the most attention. That has to stop.

Why is something perfectly acceptable if your party supports it, but it’s suddenly a bad idea when the other party suggests the same thing? It’s because it’s no longer enough to get something done in Congress; you have to destroy the other side too. Compromise, the heart of any good two-party system (think marriage, for example), is now considered a weakness. How long would your marriage last if only one spouse controlled everything, and refused to even compromise with the other spouse? Not long. I fear that our country may be on such a path. Still, I still believe the two-party system is the most efficient way to run a country.

Every once in a while, someone gets the idea of starting a third political party. It’s never worked in modern history. Any success a third party ever gets is through the power of a single popular, charismatic figure. Think Ross Perot (a man who decried government spending, but made billions from billing the government) and Jesse Ventura (who made a living criticizing government leaders, then got elected and discovered it’s tougher than he thought).

I don’t think a third party would solve the problem. I think politics would be more effective if each party pays more attention to the middle and stops giving so much attention to its loudest, most extreme members. When you look at the members of a party, their ideology is spread across a bell curve, with most of the people closer to the middle than you would expect. Just look around you – how many people do you know prefer a dictatorship rather than fair elections? How many people do you know who think eliminating all oil production and mining would work? None, I’d bet. Yet the political parties embrace those extreme ideologies rather than find some common ground.

It’s not that hard to do.

I suggest members of Congress start considering more sides of an issue before voting on it. Maybe they should have advisors on staff who hold a non-partisan viewpoint, whose job is to calmly and objectively supply their bosses with advice that stays consistent with their values. Or maybe elected officials should just start taking their marching orders from their constituents, and not the party leaders.

Of course, if that happens, the parties would lose power. That, too, would be refreshing. Imagine our elected leaders looking to their party for guidance and advice, rather than for instructions on how to vote. It would be like a trade group; I belong to the Minnesota State Bar Association, but I don’t take my directions from them. The City of Cloquet belongs to the League of Minnesota Cities, which provides all sorts of resources, but doesn’t tell Cloquet how to run its city. The political parties would be useful in such a role. That would be refreshing.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].