The following blog was originally written and posted before election day four years ago as we awaited the results of the 2016 elections. Then, as now, we were in the grips of a divisive election. However, now those differences are magnified by a pandemic, civil unrest and an economic crisis that makes it even more imperative that we come together after the election to govern and move our states and our nation forward. I believe that the advice is as valid today as it was four years ago, if not more so. I hope you agree!
By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
November 9, 2016
NOTE: This blog was written on Friday, well before the votes were tallied yesterday.
More than thirty years ago (1983), Americans were mesmerized by the made-for-television movie depicting the aftermath of an all-out nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations. The purpose of the movie, seen by more than 100 million viewers, was to warn of the devastating impact that a nuclear war could have on the US and the world by showing us what life would be like “the day after” the nuclear attacks.
While there are times that this election feels like a war (that will never end), it’s not. It is an election, and it will end on November 8. On November 9, “the day after” the election, elected officials will have a choice: they can continue to battle as if the election had not ended, remaining in their partisan and ideological camps, or they can try to move past the “battle” and get to the reason they were elected in the first place–to govern. I want to strongly make the case that they choose the latter option and go on about the business of governing on “the day after.”
Now I know this will not be easy. It never has been. It is difficult, if not impossible, to forget the downright nasty things said in the heat of a campaign about candidates, their friends and their families. It is not easy to reach across the aisle today for the hand of the person who just yesterday defeated a long time friend or colleague. It is a challenge to set aside your differences and work with a party that has spent the last year vilifying you and all that you stand for.
But that is what elected officials are called upon to do. They are elected to govern!
How do you do that? Let me offer a few tips:
Accept the Will of the Voters. The voters have spoken. Unless there are extremely close elections that influence the balance of power in your state or there are significant ballot or voting irregularities, accept the results of the election and move on. Dwelling on the election, especially if it is a close one, will just make you bitter and angry. As my grandfather would say, ”put on your big boy pants” and do your job. If you and your party do your job and address the problems facing your state, improving the lives of your citizens, you will win the next election.
Identify the Key Challenges Facing Your State. The first step to addressing a problem is to identify it and own it. Once elected, it is up to you and your colleagues to take a cold, hard and honest look at challenges facing your state. Are revenues too low? Are expenditures too high? Is your infrastructure crumbling? Are your students falling behind students in other states or across the globe? Are jobs fleeing your state and, if so, why? Identify the problems that are vexing your state and keeping your constituents up at night.
Develop a Strategy (or Strategies) for Addressing the Challenges You Find. It is not enough to identify the problems facing your state–you are expected to fix them. Like it or not, voters elected you to solve problems. How do you do that? Gather as much information as possible about the problems–their scope, their causes, etc. Then, look to other states, experts, national organizations and legislative staff for solutions. Once you have proposals in hand, work within your party and chamber to pull together a coalition to turn those proposals and bills into laws that can be implemented.
Share the Work, Share the Credit. No matter how good or smart or hardworking you are, you cannot do it all yourself. Nor can your leadership team or even your caucus. Take advantage of all of the skills and knowledge of your legislators to develop effective policies. State legislators come from all walks of life–teachers, preachers, lawyers, retirees, students, business leaders, retailers, bankers, etc. Take advantage of those varied experiences to make better laws. For example, I suspect the educators in your chamber can offer valuable insight in addressing education challenges–put them in a position to do that. And don’t take the credit when they make it better!
Look for Opportunities to Work Across Parties and Ideologies. While members of the news media and a growing proportion of the electorate think that every issue pits Democrats against Republicans and liberals against conservatives, you and I know better. The vast majority of legislation in your states is passed with bipartisan majorities–make the most of those and look for other issues that will generate that same consensus. While there may be disagreements on details, most legislators of either party support quality education, ethical and efficient government, public safety and a strong economy. If you don’t look for consensus, you will never find it.
Create Space for Cooperation and Interaction. There was a time in Washington, DC and in state capitals across the country that Democrats and Republicans did things together. They went out to eat together. They shared apartments together. They even went out drinking together! Today, it seems that legislators in Washington and state capitals, retreat to their caucuses like boxers retreating to their respective corners. Republicans seldom converse with Democrats and Democrats seldom sit down with Republicans. Legislative leaders need to and can change this. Invite the leaders from the other party to dinner. Host social gatherings where everyone is invited. Create opportunities for legislators of both parties to find out that they might not be as different as they think.
In the final scene of “The Day After,” Jason Robards’ character walks across a desolate and barren land, laid waste by nuclear war to find comfort and compassion from a total stranger that has taken shelter in what is left of his former home. As you look out at the political landscape on November 9, the day after the election, don’t focus on the scorched political landscape, but rather look to the future and look for that person or persons across the partisan or ideological aisle that can help you rebuild the political trust and faith in government that has been lost during this election. You have to fix this. Our country depends on you. Our future depends on you!