Civility in America
Tired of the BS: Political consultant Mark McKinnon wants to reform politics
“There’s never been a time that [the U.S.] has been as hyper-partisan as it is today — and uncivilized — and the hyper-partisanship has just completely poisoned the well in Washington today and it’s paralyzed the system.”
Mark McKinnon knows. He’s been in politics his entire career, and frankly, he’s tired of the bullshit.
“Our representatives are more interested in scoring political points than actually trying to reach a consensus to move the country forward. And anybody that you talk to in Washington now will tell you that they’ve never experienced anything like what’s going on today.”
I spoke to McKinnon over the phone earlier this month as he prepared for a discussion on “how to foster civility among Americans when political polarization is the norm,” sponsored by Austin station KLRU as part of its SPARK series, which has also featured Matthew Dowd and William Galston.
"The money has just gone completely mad and has become pornographic. Corporations and unions can now raise unlimited money and influence the process without disclosing whom their donors are, which gives them a lot more power."
There are few people in America who’ve been more deeply embedded in the politics of the last two decades than McKinnon. He’s worked as a confidential adviser to George W. Bush, John McCain, Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson and untold numbers of international leaders.
He’s worked with and for Democrats and Republicans (although certainly more high-ranking Republicans than Dems). He’s won political advertising awards, engineered campaigns and dealt with political crises — and in December of 2008, he hung it all up.
Writing back then for The Daily Beast, he called himself “part of the problem […] a wooly mammoth […] It’s time to kill us off. Just slaughter us all.” No, it wasn’t the cry of a man on the brink. Rather, it was the mournful refrain of a genius political operative fed up with the system.
“The time came when politics got too partisan, too mean, and too all-consuming — even for me,” he wrote in Texas Monthly at the time. “I started off a true believer — a servant of democracy, determined to change the system. By the time I quit, I’d learned how to manipulate the system, and I used all the tricks of the trade to help elect my candidates. There is one bottom line in political consulting: Winning. Nothing else matters.”
All that is a long way of saying that if you want to learn why politics today are so f*cked up, talk to McKinnon. “The reality is that the incivility is causing real problems in the system, and it’s creating a paralysis and an inability to move any conversation or any policy forward.”
On the fringe
I asked him whether he thought movements like the Tea Party and Occupy were symptoms of the disease, or contributing factors.
“They’re symptoms of the problem; they’re vocal about their expressions, but we know from the work that we’re doing over a long period of time that there is a vast majority in this country that are hungry for more dialogue and greater civility, more cooperation and more consensus. While there are fringe movements that spring up from time to time, they are largely representative of a minority of voters, not a majority. And the problem is that a lot of these groups have predominant microphones that would suggest they represent a much broader constituency than they actually do.”
McKinnon argues, and research proves, that most Americans are centrist moderates. Whether we lean conservative or liberal, we are reasonable people with “an enormous appetite for a return to a degree of normalcy, where there’s at least some acknowledgement we’re not suggesting the other side is the enemy and questioning their motives; that we can create a constructive dialogue to address the problems we’ve got.”
So if a majority of Americans want to create “constructive dialogue,” how did we get here?
Explains McKinnon: “There’s talk radio, cable television, the evolution of the Internet, redistricting, primary reforms that need to happen — they have all congealed to create an atmosphere that makes this problematic. And you lay on top of that, the money has just gone completely mad and has become pornographic. Corporations and unions can now raise unlimited money and influence the process without disclosing whom their donors are, which gives them a lot more power.
“Our representatives are responding to these fringe, well-funded groups, and the problem is these groups punish representatives for anything that looks like bi-partisan behavior, or cooperation, or consensus, or compromise; so the way the system is set up right now there’s no reward for good behavior and only punishment.
“They are sort of taking over the system. And at the same time there’s a response from average Americans out there, they’re just recoiling in horror at what they see.”
Despite the depressing tone, McKinnon has not given up. He believes in democracy. “I’m a glass half-full guy, and I think that ultimately democracy finds a way to reflect what the majority really wants.”
He looks to two relatively new organizations he believes can change the game — one working inside the current political system, another outside.
“I know a lot of people who think they ought to be president, the only reason they don’t run is because they don’t have a bazillion dollars to eliminate all the ballot access problems or go through the primaries."
“We created an organization like No Labels so there would be somebody out there providing cover for representatives when they do what we would describe as responsible behavior. Representatives respond to wherever they’re getting the feedback, and unfortunately they’re getting almost all their feedback from hyper-partisan, well-funded interest groups," he explains.
"No Labels is working within the system to create more bipartisanship and create institutional reforms — process reforms — that will allow members of congress to work in a way that’s good for the country.
On Dec. 13th, we‘re going to unveil a dozen reforms that don’t require any legislation that we feel will be a pretty compelling basket of ideas.”
No Labels currently has 150,000 members supporting and working toward system reform.
On the other side is Americans Elect. “Americans Elect is an experiment working outside the system to break the stranglehold of the two parties. The predominant reason that there hasn’t been third party success in this country is because of, A) ballot access and B) money.”
It costs an enormous amount of money for any individual to get on the ballot in all 50 states, which means only the most wealthy of individuals can afford to run for President as an independent. Americans Elect has so far spent $20 million getting on the ballot in more than 20 states. They plan to hold a convention and create an Americans Elect ticket for the 2012 election. The candidate will be chosen through a system of social media and collaboration.
“I know a lot of people who think they ought to be president; the only reason they don’t run is because they don’t have a bazillion dollars to eliminate all the ballot access problems or go through the primaries. If you say ‘you don’t have to go through the primaries and you don’t have to spend a dime for ballot access,’ I think some interesting people are going to show up.”
McKinnon wants the process to work. He left an extraordinary and successful career because he didn’t believe the system worked anymore, and he wants to make it better.
Whether No Labels or Americans Elect can have any impact whatsoever — and the campaign trail is littered with the dead bodies of failed reform organizations — will be seen later. In the meantime, McKinnon's belief in the great power of democracy — the idea that We The People, the broad, responsible, open-minded, collaborative group most Americans are — will always win the day.