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Long On America

Harold Ford Jr. Optimistic on Democracy Despite Country’s Polarization

By James Martinez

During his decade in Congress, Harold Ford Jr. earned a reputation for working across the political aisle to find common ground. He served as a member of the Blue Dog coalition, an official caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives comprised of fiscally responsible Democrats. While frustrated with the current political moment and concerned about the message it may send to the next generation of elected officials, Ford remains optimistic about the country’s ability to return to a functional government built around compromise.

The Detroiter interviewed Ford prior to the Mackinac Policy Conference in advance of his appearance as moderator of a congressional panel on civility and its role in moving the country forward. Answers are edited for length and clarity.

What’s your assessment of the current level of civility?

Voters expect from politicians a certain level of disagreement in discourse and passion as politicians debate robustly and, hopefully, honestly the issues of the day. But what we have today, unfortunately, is not necessarily a lack of civility, we just have a lack of attention to the most pressing issues facing the country. Many politicians are more obsessed with exercising their own free speech and at the same time wanting to suppress or restrain the free speech of those they disagree with. And this happens on both sides. There’s always a lack of civility in politics and I chalk that up as people being passionate, but we have a lack of results and right now our whole body politic is broken.

Have we lost the ability to have a rational substantive debate?

It’s a lost art, but we certainly have to reclaim if we’re going to be serious about solving problems. Unfortunately, right now it takes a catastrophic event or a near deathlike event or a national security scare, or a financial system breakdown or some other crisis for politicians to really do something.

Explain the repercussions of that a bit more.

Everybody likes good political theater between the Democrats and Republicans yelling a little bit, but what voters have also come to anticipate, and rightly so, is for serious (elected officials) who are thinking about answers and who are developing answers. And the frustrating part for me, and what is the distressing part for every American, is that the system seems to have lost its ability to solve problems unless there’s a complete crisis or breakdown. You can’t have a functioning democracy when the only time your government works is when there’s catastrophe.

How do we restore Congress to a more productive branch of government?

Voters need to elect better people and you need better people to seek office who are more concerned about making the country function than they are just scoring cheap political points or advancing themselves. And we should define what being good at politics means. It means solving problems. You must work with people, and you need to work with people in your party and people outside your party. We lack that right now.

Is it possible to unite Republicans, Democrats, and independents to strengthen our democracy?

Yes. It just takes leadership and I think the country is hungry for it and would embrace leaders that were not so far on each side. The majority of the country is right in the middle, but a lot of people going into government don’t understand how government operates. They think you go into government to impose your ideas on people because your ideas are superior. That’s not how government works. That’s not how the country was started. Our country is built on a canyon of compromises. But don’t get me wrong, we’ll get back to it. I’m not negative on the country. I’m negative on the moment, but I’m long America. We’ll find a way to elect people that want to achieve these things.

“We should define what being good at politics means. It means solving problems. You must work with people, and you need to work with people in your party and people outside your party. We lack that right now. ”
-Harold Ford Jr., Vice Chair, Corporate and Institutional Banking, PNC Bank