COLORADO SPRINGS — I recently moderated a conversation in conjunction with the World Affairs Council and the League of Women Voters in Colorado Springs between retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark and sitting Republican Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan. The focus was the state of politics in this country as they see it. And when I asked them to share a few brief headlines to start that would characterize where they believe this country sits right now as it relates to politics and leadership, their responses were a bit disheartening, but not surprising. For example, the two men used the terms,
"We are at a crisis point", "So many believe that democracy has stopped working for them", "Vicious cycle of destruction that is destroying America's standing in the world", "Need to meet the test of courage and leadership", and perhaps most importantly in these uncertain times, "Reaching across the aisle is so important right now".
So I asked, how do we get there, when we are here, a country that bears witness to a deadly insurrection on January 6th, on the very symbol of democracy, the U.S. Capitol complex, rioters pushing back against a clearly defined, legitimate and constitutionally protected election process. For General Clark, he says it starts with accountability, identifying and prosecuting those who organized and were involved what turned out to be one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history, but just as important he said, education, voters need to understand how the process has and continues to work. "In America", he said, "the process is more important than the outcome". Adding, "We have a sphere of privacy where we can share values and have differing values, but we have to come together for government to compromise interests."
For Governor Hogan, he took it a step further, focusing directly on our elected leaders, no matter what level of government, but starting at the federal level, he said, "We've gotta find a way to listen to the other side because we all have the same problems, these aren't republican problems or democrat problems, that we need to come together to come up with solutions, I think it's what people want and I'm not sure all the politicians are getting the message yet."
Beyond just listening, the Governor believes there need to be structural changes in our system, how politicians are elected, he said. He would like to see redistricting reform, the very system in place to determine our representative government, he says this is contributing to the gridlock, politicians picking voters, he told me, instead of voters picking politicians. "This means that legislators end up in highly gerrymandered and very partisan districts where they only have to worry about appealing to the extremes of one party or another, they don't have to really have to be competitive with most voters in a general election".
For General Clark, he says campaign finance reform must change immediately, he says get the big money out of politics, but it's frustrating he admits, when politicians themselves are the ones who make the rules that ultimately work in their favor. "Imagine, spending two billion dollars, 2 and a half billion on an election, think of what that money could do for schools, and healthcare and children, and we're spending it on advertisements and media, and the advertisements don't talk about issues, most of them are attack messages."
And when it comes to messaging, both men agree that the impact of social media is undeniable, for better or worse, in fueling the fire of discontent in this country right now, particularly the "selective censorship" that has unfolded from some of the largest and most influential players. But how you go about that, is truly a question that has yet to be answered.
For Governor Hogan, "Taking away peoples first amendment rights to free speech is a pretty slippery slope and who gets to decide you know, who's gonna be doing the censoring and maybe people with these views cant speak on these platforms but people with these views can, so I think we need to be very careful before we move in that kind of direction."
General Clark agrees changes need to be made, but again, how we get there will be difficult. The General believes, "I think shutting off the twitter account and so forth is a stop gap measure, that's not the solution, what we do need to look at the impact of social media on democracy, not only here, but around the world."
Both of these political heavyweights were brought together to share their opinions for a reason, they are not just talking about what needs to change in politics in this country, but both are actively involved in facilitating it, solutions they told me that don't begin and end in Washington. For General Clark, he runs a global non-profit, called "Renew America Together", a bi-partisan, grassroots effort to bring competing sides of the most pressing issues, together. "So that its just not a hammer coming down from the top, but its really people getting together with their neighbor and people from different states and saying here's the real problem we're trying to address, trying to find solutions that way and build bridges at the bottom, not just the top" he told me.
Governor Hogan heads the "America United Foundation", also bi-partisan, but as it relates to Congress specifically, he is the chairman of the "Problem Solvers Caucus" on Capitol Hill, 25 Democrats, 25 Republicans, working to bring both sides together. In fact, they were able to bring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell together after eight and a half months of stalemate, to build the framework for the current covid relief package that is in the works.
Ever the optimist, Governor Hogan says, "I know it can work, if we can do it here in the state of Maryland, which is the most democratic state in America as a republican governor, there's no place in America where the same principles won't succeed."
As for the recently concluded impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, both agree, it needed to end quickly, accountability for what happened and why, criminals prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but the country must move forward, they said, adding, "we need to show the world we can stand together."