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Olympia Snowe: The Path to Ending Political Divisiveness in DC

Spoiler alert:

That’s one of the concluding remarks in former Senator Olympia Snowe’s recent book, Fighting for Common Ground. Tired of government stalemate, congressional inaction, and the declining state of public discourse and civility in America? Snowe outlines a blueprint for change — a way out of the seemingly hopeless situation the nation is in. But, the former senator is doing more than writing books. She is working both behind the scenes and in public toward the same ideals she held during her 40 years in the Legislative Branch.

Olympia Snowe shocked the political world when she announced she would not be running for re-election in 2012. Snowe spent 6 years in the Maine Legislature, 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, and 18 years in the U.S. Senate. In 2006, Time Magazine called Snowe “The Caretaker” due to her reputation for getting things done nationally as well as being a highly effective advocate for her constituents.

Snowe was one of the last remaining moderate Republicans in Congress, a voice of reason in a world where reason has become a rarity.

“Throughout my career I traveled the bipartisan road and was consistently a consensus-builder,”  Snowe writes.

She claims that congressional activity was no longer about solving problem:

“Much of what is done in Congress is designed for a thirty-second ad, the purpose of which is political leveraging, no more, no less.”

But as her successes in creating consensus became the exception, she decided not to seek re-election. She expresses her frustration with the atmosphere of partisanship, polarization, and dysfunction within Congress.

“I came to the sad conclusion that I could more effectively serve my country from outside the Senate than from within,” she said.

However, she remains driven “to fix what is now America’s blocked and dysfunctional system.” In a May 2013 talk at the Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., Snowe said, “I wasn’t abandoning or leaving the fight; I was just taking the fight in a different direction.”

In an email interview, I asked Senator Snowe about her experiences since leaving the Senate, about how effective she has been in her fight to accomplish what she set out to achieve, and what she believes is the outlook for positive change.

She first explained how the American people are not as polarized as we are led to believe. She cited an Esquire-NBC News survey which said that 51% of Americans identify themselves in the center. She believes these people are practical, pragmatic and simply looking for results from their elected officials.

One of Snowe’s big issues with Congress is the decline of civility in political discourse. What is missing today, she said, “is a willingness to listen to and work with those with whom we disagree, and to respect differing views.” She promotes compromise and working through differences, “to accept that you won’t typically get 100 percent of what you seek.”

Snowe has traveled far and wide in America over the past year, tirelessly spreading her message during speaking engagements at colleges, universities, and other public forums.

“Everywhere I travel, people are fearful that the current dysfunction will continue as a permanent culture,” she said.

Speaking at Brown University last month, Snowe discussed the deep divisions in Congress which have resulted in a breakdown in the legislative process.

“We must treat it as an aberration and not as a trend and make Congress the solution-driven powerhouse that it once was,” she explained to the Brown community.

The solution requires the American people to force change on our elected officials. During her interview, Snowe said we must reward politicians willing to work together at the ballot box, and exert a penalty on those who refuse. She also described how social media can be utilized by those in the middle in the same way “as those who have fanned the flames of political polarization.”

She added:

“Clearly we have to harness the awesome power of social media, as we’ve seen in America and around the world… and it’s crucial for every American to understand that the tools for action are at our fingertips, quite literally.”

Snowe claims that the answer also lies largely in organized efforts to “defeat the machinery of partisanship.” Her own efforts include board positions for the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), and she founded her own political action committee, Olympia’s List.

Snowe sees groups like these as instrumental in moving the country away from divisive polarization. They are about empowering voters to “take back their democracy” and allowing those frustrated with today’s environment to make a difference. She emphasizes that this includes, “most everyone I’ve encountered!”

One of the groups she is working with, the Bipartisan Policy Centerwas founded in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole, and George Mitchell. Snowe’s statement of purpose on the BPC website is “to help return the Senate to its roots as a place of refuge from the passions of politics–to the Founding Fathers’ vision of a forum where the political fires are tempered, not stoked.”

The National Institute for Civil Discourse, based at the University of Arizona, states that its goal is to foster civil discourse in political campaigns and all avenues of deliberative democracy. The NICD includes an impressive array of advisors: Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. In her book, Snowe mentions the special honor of working with the NICD alongside former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly.

Snowe’s personal organization, Olympia’s List, “recognizes and supports elected officials and candidates who demonstrate their commitment to solving our nation’s problems.”

Willingness to work across the aisle is a key requirement for inclusion. Her website currently lists 65 legislators (33 senators and 32 representatives) closest to the ideological center, based on 2013 roll-call votes on key policy issues compiled by the National Journal.

There’s no quick and easy solution, but this is a can-do country with can-do people and we can begin laying the groundwork now.
Olympia Snowe
The former senator also urges involvement in local grassroots efforts such as the Village Square movement, which began in Tallahassee, Florida, and support of national organizations like Fix the Debt, No Labels, and Third Way.

All of these groups push to restore civil dialogue and support efforts toward compromise and consensus-building in government.

While Snowe says she does not have a magic wand, she is hopeful about the future. The solution, she claims in her book, is dependent on “a relentless citizens’ movement demanding that they [Congress] seek the common ground these perilous times demand.”

“There’s no quick and easy solution, but this is a can-do country with can-do people and we can begin laying the groundwork now,” she added in her interview. “It can be done!”

I may have given away the ending, but the point is that there is an end which can be found to partisan divisiveness, and a return to a more civil and functional government. “Congress can be fixed!”

Thank you, Senator Snowe, for showing us the path.

What do you think is the outlook for solving partisan gridlock?

Photo Source: Bipartisan Policy Center