In the weeks before this issue went to press, WIRED wrote to every candidate running for president (including the President) and asked them to respond to the following prompt:
By some measures, America’s political leaders are more ideologically divided than at any time since the Civil War. The increase in polarization in this country is one of the most profound, well documented, and disastrous trends in American civic life. Beyond simple calls for civility and moderation, how does that trend get reversed?
After 34 initial emails—and more than that many follow-up emails—six candidates responded. For the ones who didn’t, we found public statements they have made on the topic.
SENATOR, CO (DEMOCRAT)
We have to start with our elections and our campaign finance system. We should ban partisan gerrymandering and pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, which has given billionaires the power to spend unlimited sums to punish politicians who stray from the billionaires’ narrow views. We also should dramatically increase transparency in our campaign finance system, give the Federal Election Commission the power to enforce existing laws, and create a publicly financed matching program for small donors. And we should encourage local and state governments to adopt ranked-choice voting, a promising reform that can reduce slash-and-burn politics and expand voter choices at the ballot box. American tech companies must also take responsibility for the effect of their platforms on our democracy–by revisiting incentives that reward the most incendiary content, algorithms that digitally gerrymander us into echo chambers, and rules that allow politicians to microtarget lies to the public. At the same time, as citizens, we also need to reimagine how to engage with our democracy. Watching cable news for two hours a night is not the same thing as organizing in your neighborhood. Trading snarky comments on Facebook is not the same thing as going to a town hall. Shaming someone is not the same thing as persuading them. We best serve our democracy in our communities, at the ballot box, and in real dialog. There are steps we can take to bridge our divides and save this democracy. —Response to WIRED
MAYOR, SOUTH BEND, IN (DEMOCRAT)
In Afghanistan, I learned to trust my life to fellow Americans with radically different backgrounds and political beliefs. Our common sense of purpose brought us together. We have to summon a similar sense of common purpose and mission as a nation. This instinct comes naturally to mayors as well as veterans. As a Democratic mayor in Indiana, with three Republican governors, I wouldn’t have been able to get much done if I hadn’t worked across party lines. But in order to do that, there has to be good faith. We need leaders in both parties who recognize that people are not all good or all bad. We’re just people, capable of good or bad things. And it is the job of our leaders to bring out what’s best in us, to remind us of those values we hold in common. By recognizing that our values can unite us, we can reverse the trend toward polarization, and deliver on the things the American people of all political persuasions want. —Response to WIRED
SENATOR, VT (DEMOCRAT)
“We must view ourselves as part of ‘an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,’ as Dr. King put it. In other words, we are in this together. We must see ourselves as part of one nation, one community, and one society—regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or country of origin. This quintessentially American idea is literally emblazoned on our coins: E pluribus unum. From the many, one.” —June 12, 2019, speech, Washington, DC
FORMER GOVERNOR, MA (DEMOCRAT)
We start by not putting each other in a box. Too often we see just a sliver of a person, and then we think we know everything about them. When we reduce each other to shorthand and labels, we create the space for polarization and division. I don’t fit in a box. Most people don’t. I don’t think you have to hate Republicans to be a good Democrat. I don’t think you have to hate conservatives to be a good progressive or to hate business to be a good social justice warrior—any more than I think you have to grow up poor and stay poor to care about chronic poverty or to hate police to believe Black lives matter. I try to be the kind of man who rejects false choices, not for the sake of tamping down disagreement but because the range of my life experience has taught me that so many of the choices we present in politics are false. We can reverse this trend when we have a president who leads by example, who understands they are the president of the people who voted for them as much as the people who didn’t, and who takes that responsibility seriously. —Response to WIRED
FORMER CONGRESSMEMBER, IL (REPUBLICAN)
“Maybe a reformed outlaw like me who understands some of what I did to help create Trump can help bring the country together and heal the divide. The next president’s job is going to be to unite us with our allies. Unite Americans at home. Unite different members of the media. This guy took a divided country, and he’s hell-bent on dividing it even more. If I’m elected president I’m going to try to unite us.” —September 24, 2019, Business Insider GOP debate (condensed)
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT (DEMOCRAT)
Our Constitution doesn’t begin with the phrase, “We the Democrats,” or “We the Republicans.” It starts with “We the People.” We need to remember that today more than ever.
Our politics today have become too mean, too personal, and too ugly. Instead of questioning someone’s judgments, which is appropriate and necessary in our political system, we demonize them and question their motives. It is virtually impossible to reach consensus after constantly attacking someone’s integrity.
You hear it from the highest office in the country, where our President finds scapegoats to blame for whatever problems emerge: immigrants, Muslims, nearly anyone of a different creed, color, or conviction. This has been a scheme utilized by unscrupulous politicians throughout history. But it comes at a cost—it weakens us, distracts us, divides us. It causes us to lose credibility around the world. This is not who we are.
I refuse to accept the idea that we cannot come together as a nation to solve hard problems. We must remember that compromise itself is not a dirty word, and consensus is not a weakness—it’s a necessity. It’s how this government was designed to work. It’s what I did when I worked across the aisle to save us from a depression and to put together the historic Cancer Moonshot to enable critical scientific research, find a cure, and end cancer as we know it. It’s what I’ll do as your president.
I’m more optimistic about America’s future today than I was when I got elected to the Senate as a 29-year old. We can make progress and restore the soul of this nation.
We are almost 330 million Americans who must do what our president will not: treat everyone with dignity and respect. Give hate no safe harbor. Choose unity over division. There’s not a single thing we can’t do if we stand together. —Response to WIRED
FORMER MAYOR, NYC (DEMOCRAT)
“Healthy democracy is about living with disagreement, not eliminating it … An approach that demands silence on contested issues, or that extends bitter political division into commerce and every other sphere of life, will succeed only in fracturing the country even more deeply. Demagogues of the left or right will certainly prosper in such an environment. Liberal democracy will not. Enough with ‘speech is violence.’ Restoring the ability to disagree without becoming mortal enemies is a new and urgent civic imperative.” —September 15, 2019, “Democracy Requires Discomfort,” Bloomberg Opinion
CONGRESSMEMBER, HI (DEMOCRAT)
“The longer we continue to allow ourselves to be divided like this, for people to further their own political interests, the weaker we are as a people and as a country. There is so much that unites us. This is what I find inspiring as we go and meet with different people all across the country—the diversity that we have in this country and how beautiful it is that we can come together around these uniting principles.” —September 28, 2019, interview, The Hill
Today’s political polarization is a symptom of a larger problem—the corporate takeover of our democracy. For years, unchecked corporate power has run roughshod over the American people, buying influence in the halls of government and pushing narrow interests at the expense of workers’ rights, our health, and our environment. Corporations have attempted to deepen and exploit political divisions by spreading misinformation and fear to increase profits and boost stock prices. We need to restore political power directly to the people and allow them a more direct role in deciding on the important issues that affect their lives. We also must organize and unite around an urgently needed action—fighting our climate crisis. We have 10 years left to stave off the worst effects of climate change; it threatens humanity and the world, our lives and our communities. But the United States and the American people were built to take on the big problems. We can rise to this challenge and make it our greatest opportunity—and we must do it together. —Response to WIRED
“We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution—and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good. Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.” —February 5, 2019, State of the Union address
FORMER CONGRESSMEMBER, MD (DEMOCRAT)
“One of the things I’ve pledged is in my first hundred days to only do bipartisan proposals. Wouldn’t it be amazing if a president looked at the American people at the inauguration and said, ‘I represent every one of you, whether you voted for me or not, and this is how I’m going to prove it’? … You prove to the American people that we can actually start solving problems and getting things done.” —January 13, 2019, interview, ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos (condensed)
FORMER GOVERNOR, MA (REPUBLICAN)
“America is stronger, and can afford to be more generous, when it is united rather than divided. There is a place and time for opposition and dissent; there is always room for healthy debate. But there should be no hatred, no intimidation, no name-calling between the various arms of the federal government or between groups of citizens. Like President Reagan, like President Eisenhower, our leaders in government should seek to unite us and make us all proud to be Americans—and never, ever seek to divide us.” —February 15, 2019, speech, NH
SENATOR, MN (DEMOCRAT)
“One of my main goals in the Senate, where there is so much polarization and people standing in opposite corners, has been to be a force of good, to work to get things done. There are some things where I take a stand and I’m on a bill just with Democrats. But then if I can find some middle ground and actually get something done, like on human trafficking, I’m going to go for it. And I think that’s what not just people of America want. I think that’s what Democrats want.” —March 19, 2019, interview, NPR
SENATOR, MA (DEMOCRAT)
“The way we achieve our goals and bring our country together is we talk about the things that unite us, and that is that we want to build an America that works for the people, not one that just works for rich folks … That’s something that Democrats care about, independents care about, and Republicans care about, because regardless of party affiliation, people understand: Across this country, our government is working better and better for the billionaires, for the rich, for the well-connected, and worse and worse for everyone else. We come together when we acknowledge that and say we’re going to make real change.” —November 20, 2019, Democratic debate, Atlanta (condensed)
This country is deeply divided along partisan lines, with both sides pushing increasingly partisan and ideological agendas that don’t align with the views of a majority of Americans. A study called “The Hidden Tribes of America” that sought to understand the reasons behind political polarization and the views of Americans found that fewer than 15 percent of respondents fell into ideological extremes. Most people—two-thirds of Americans—fall into what the study calls the Exhausted Majority, a group that feels forgotten in the public debate and desires compromise. I think most Americans are exhausted by the pummeling inanity and want real solutions that improve our lives. To break the gridlock in Washington, DC, we need to build a team of people that will work with just about anyone who wants to solve problems. That team will be pragmatic and ideologically diverse. I’m glad to say that Americans of every part of the political spectrum already support my campaign. I’m building a coalition of disaffected Trump voters, independents, libertarians, and conservatives, as well as Democrats and progressives. What holds this group together is their desire to focus on building a country that we can be proud of. It’s not left, not right, but forward. —Response to WIRED
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