When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades back in the 1990’s, one of their big ideas was that congresspeople spent too much time in Washington. Instead of living in DC, they should live in their districts. This would connect them better with their constituents and their needs instead of isolate them with other politicians in the capital. Only one problem. The same problem that seems to happen with most ideas in politics – unintended consequences.
I was in my twenties when this was happening. I remember that it seemed like a good idea. Politicians should stay close to the people they represent, right? Professional class politicians who live in DC lose touch with those they represent. But as with most things in life, it is a bit more complicated as I learned while reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.
The idea was that because they stayed home in their districts so much more of their time, they would be more connected to the people. They would spend more time with them, hear about their issues more directly. Except that isn’t what happened. Instead at the urging of their parties, both Democrat and Republican, congresspeople spent a much larger part of their time fund raising. And because they didn’t live in Washington, they had much less opportunity to connect with their fellow representatives.
When they lived in DC, their kids went to the same schools, they attended the same school activities, they got together more frequently for lunches and dinners. In short, they got to know their fellow congresspeople as people outside of work and across party lines. This had the affect of making compromise easier to come to. They saw their political rivals as people like them that had goodness in their hearts with whom they disagreed. This gave them the basis to work things out.
Living outside of the capital, they lost this connection. With the greater focus on fundraising from their party, party tribalism became the focus of the day. This led to further polarization of our politics and to much of the mess we currently find ourselves in. Not only have our representatives reduced their focus to their party first, seeing their rivals as existential enemies, the parties themselves have encouraged this same vision for their members. And now particularly partisan people hold this same vision and idea about those who disagree with them, tearing apart friends and families.
I don’t have simple solution to this. I am not sure there is one. In fact, I think this is an object lesson in the dangers of simple solutions. After all, it started the simple idea that living in your home district as a congressperson would be much better for the people you represent and the country as a whole. It didn’t turn out that way. So it may be better to consider the second and third order effects of “simple” solutions before we implement them. We won’t always see the dangers that lurk ahead, but we may be able to avoid some of them. And spare ourselves some pain and difficulty in the process.