The Time Has Come To Take Toxic Partisanship Head On

TL;DR

Things are f — ed up

  1. Toxic partisans have contempt for those in the other party, insult them, won’t listen to ideas outside their party, refuse to compromise and put their own interests over the country.
  2. We estimate three-quarters of elected officials are toxic partisans while only one-third of regular people display these characteristics.
  3. Toxic partisanship leads to zero-sum thinking, revenge politics and gridlock.
  4. If we don’t reverse toxic partisanship things will get worse.

But…we’ve got a plan

  1. Educate: We teach people about what toxic partisanship looks like in real life by translating dense research into easily digestible content.
  2. Identify: We identify toxic partisans by using public to score elected officials on a partisan scale.
  3. Empower: We discourage toxic behavior by enabling people to micro fund those running against toxic partisans
  4. Connect: We connect leaders and voters who share post partisan values to power up the movement.
  5. Enjoy: We design the app as a game to maximize delight.

Tell me more about this toxic partisanship thing

You’ve seen it, you’ve felt it. You can detect a toxic partisan by the way they speak and by the way they act.

Toxic partisans not only look down on those in the other party, they have contempt for them. Toxic partisans love to trigger political debates (in person or on social media) so they can prove how “right” they are. They genuinely believe they know what’s best for the country. They believe all of our problems would be solved if everybody else would shut up and just follow their advice.

Toxic partisans don’t need to hear the other side because they’ve already figured out why it’s flawed. Some toxic partisans are more polite, but you can smell their political righteousness anyway.

We think of toxic partisanship as a contagious disease. It infects Americans from every walk of life and political ideology. We especially see it running rampant among those in positions of power and in the media. The more people are exposed to toxic partisanship, the more it spreads within them. It leads to zero-sum thinking, revenge politics and gridlock. To put it bluntly, toxic partisanship is ripping our country apart.

At ChangeRoots, we are attempting to bring intellectual rigor to how we define and evaluate toxic partisanship. We analyze a spectrum of research to understand the nuances. While it’s still very much a work in progress, our current model identifies seven core characteristics of toxic partisanship:

  1. Ideological orthodoxy — refusal to entertain views or solutions outside a predetermined set of ideals or compromise.
  2. Contempt for the other side — a mixture of hate and disgust for those in the other party characterized by insulting them or using dehumanizing language.
  3. Focus on differences — maximizing attention on that which divides us from those in other political parties.
  4. Self-interest — prioritizing votes, statements and actions to win re-election over what is in the best long-term interest of constituents.
  5. Zero-sum mindset (win-lose) — the belief anything the other party considers a “win” is necessarily a loss for your side. And vice versa.
  6. Assuming negative intent — assuming the worst possible interpretation of any action or statement by someone in the other party.
  7. Self-righteousness — the belief in a single ‘right’ and moral way to act or think, your way.

Take a moment and think of someone you know personally or an elected official who exhibits these qualities. We all know far too many. To be clear, toxic partisanship has nothing to do with which party you identify with. There are equal amounts of toxic partisan Democrats as there are toxic partisan Republicans.

So how big is the problem?

landmark study conducted on polarization by Common Cause identified seven distinct groups of Americans they call our “Hidden Tribes of America: distinguished not by who they are or what they look like, but what they believe.”

The study broke down the country into the Wings (the most extreme) and the Exhausted Majority (everybody else).

“[For those in the Wings] tribalism runs deep in their thinking. Their distrust and fear of the opposing side drives many of the people in these groups, and they have especially negative opinions of each other. When people today speak about how Americans seem to hate each other, they’re usually talking about the opinions and behaviors of the Wings…

In contrast, the remaining two-thirds of Americans show more diversity in their political views, express less certainty about them, and are more open to compromise and change — even on issues that we all tend to consider highly polarizing.”

Hidden Tribes

At ChangeRoots, we consider the 15% most left-wing and 15% most right-wing part of the population to be toxic partisans. While toxic partisans represent only 30% of the population, they, unfortunately, dominate the national conversation and represent a much larger portion of the media and elected officials. We estimate as much as 75% of elected officials and political journalists are toxic partisans, according to our definition.

How do we fight toxic partisanship?

Now that we’ve defined it and better understand the danger it poses, the time has come to develop an antidote. We can’t wait until we perfectly understand all of the different ways toxic partisanship manifests. We have to begin reversing its spread immediately to revitalize our republic.

Post partisanship is our proposed antidote. Post partisanship is a set of values and characteristics that represent what our best leaders should embody. It is the opposite of toxic partisanship. It is the Ariel to the toxic Ursula.

Photo by Jules D. on Unsplash

What actually is post partisanship?

We want leaders that focus on common ground, look for win-win solutions, make decisions based on evidence and show civility towards all people, including those in the other party. To put it simply, it is a leader who we want our children to be like when they grow up.

While our research continues, we’ve stood on the shoulders of many great thinkers to develop an initial set of characteristics that represent post partisanship:

  1. Evidence-based decision making — using the best available research evidence — in addition to citizen preferences and personal values — to develop, explain and vote on policy. Regardless of party platform.
  2. Adventurous civility — Respecting the dignity and ideas of those with whom you profoundly disagree, while acting upon your own beliefs.
  3. Common ground focus — maximizing attention on that which we share with those in other political parties.
  4. Public service — Doing what you believe is in the best interest of the public even if it hurts your chances of re-election (e.g. pissing off big donors to do what you believe is right)
  5. Non-zero sum mindset (win-win) — The belief there is always an outcome where all stakeholders benefit and a commitment to put in whatever effort it takes to discover that outcome.
  6. Assuming positive intent — Assuming the best possible interpretation of any action or statement by someone, until proven otherwise.
  7. Humbleness — The belief there is not one right way to do things and the openness to being persuaded to adopt a different approach.

Now take a moment to consider someone in your life or someone you admire that exhibits these qualities. How do they treat people? How do they lead? We each know someone who embodies post partisanship. Imagine if all of our elected officials acted like that person you are thinking of. What could our country accomplish then?

As with toxic partisanship, post partisanship exists in both parties. There are equal amounts of post partisan Democrats as there are post partisan Republicans. You don’t need to give up your party in order to act in a post partisan manner.

Post partisanship is a set of values unattached to any party’s platform. It is a code of behavior that exemplifies our very best.

Okay, but how do we actually inject post partisanship into the country?

ChangeRoots’ mission is to reverse the toxic partisanship infecting our country. We believe the most effective way to do so is by getting millions of people to reward post partisan behavior and discourage toxic behavior. We envision a world where each time a politician takes a post partisan action, millions send them a quarter. For each toxic action, millions send their challenger a quarter. Do good, get rewarded. Act toxic, suffer the consequence.

I know at first glance that the idea of adding more money to politics as a cure for toxicity seems counterintuitive. Even offensive. We felt the same way. However, as we thought deeply about what truly motivates politicians. it became clear to us this could actually help.

Right now, most politicians are primarily motivated by getting re-elected. This is the problem. They care about their seat in Congress more than doing what is right for the country. It hit us, why not use that fact to our advantage? So we asked ourselves three crucial questions:

  1. What if we created a way where it was in the self-interest of politicians to act post-partisan?
  2. What if, by leading with integrity, treating people with respect, being evidence-based and working across the aisle, a politician could actually raise more money, from more people, than they could any other way?
  3. What if, when they acted like a toxic partisan, they triggered huge sums of money being sent to their next opponent?

In this reality, it becomes a simple calculation for a politician: Act post partisan, get elected. Act toxic partisan, get fired.

I’m skeptical, why will this work?

Behavioral science teaches that potent feedback is immediate, specific and consequential. If feedback is all three of those things, behavior change is likely. Think about how you teach a dog or a child.

Micro donating in reaction to specific actions makes feedback potent. If politicians don’t wise up, then we keep funding their opponent until they lose election. We want to keep things simple; good leaders are amplified, toxic leaders are fired.

Make Good Trouble

Civil rights leader John Lewis once urged people that “sometimes you have to get in good trouble to make a difference that matters.” All we know is that we’re out here making some trouble — we hope you do the same.

6 Ways to Depolarize American Politics

Polarization is a scientific term to describe the nature of two magnets that physically repel one another. An invisible force literally pushes polarized objects away from each other. 

When discussing polarization in politics this strikes me as an apt metaphor. Polarized politicians repel those in the other party with their behavior. They push those outside of their “tribe” away with insults, contempt and political sabotage. In a world where we have massive problems (like debt, immigration, healthcare and climate change to name a few) this behavior from our leaders is insanity. 

The bad news is that polarization is getting worse. The good news is that we can actually do something about it. Here are 6 ways we can depolarize American politics. 

  1. Focus on citizens over elites – Elites have too much political influence. Politicians who focus on what’s best for all citizens, from both parties, rather than a tiny group of elites often find common ground between parties. A candidate who prioritizes raising small donations rather than large donations signals they prioritize regular people over elites. 
  1. Change the way we vote – We currently elect politicians through winner-take-all voting. The candidate with the most votes wins. Research shows elections become less polarized after adopting something called ranked-choice voting rather than traditional winner-take-all voting. There is less negative campaigning, higher turnout and higher rates of people reporting they feel like the system is working for them. Ireland, Australia and in the US; Maine, New York City and 23 cities use ranked-choice voting. 
  1. End gerrymandering – Gerrymandering is cheating. It’s the party in power unfairly using their power to draw congressional districts in a way that makes it more likely that those in their party get elected. The good news is there is a way to make it fair; appoint a nonpartisan group of experts to draw the districts. Studies show elections become less polarized when this happens. The district becomes more competitive, meaning nearly equal amounts of Republicans and Democrats vote for candidates. This leads to less extreme politicians, on both sides, getting elected. 
  1. Bridge, don’t break – Bridging occurs when members of different groups reach beyond their own group to members of other groups to build common ground. It is being respectful to others. It is recognizing the humanity of all people. Breaking is the opposite of bridging. Breaking is turning against the “outsider” group or the other. Breaking language is insulting, dehumanizing and focused on what makes us different. Studies show that people exposed to bridging language become more open, trusting and flexible in their views while those exposed to breaking language become more combative and closed-minded. 
  1. Adopt a win-win mindset – This is understanding a “win” for all is ultimately a better long-term resolution than if only one party gets their way. A win-lose (or “zero-sum” mindset) not only limits creativity by limiting perspectives, but it creates resentment in those who are the “losers”. When the other party (the “losers”) then take power, they seek retribution. They now want the other party to “lose” as they did, creating a vicious cycle that leads to bad outcomes for regular people. A win-win mindset increases creativity and harmony, leading to better solutions to difficult problems. 
  1. Work across the aisle – Politicians who work with the other party the most – co-sponsoring bills together, voting together – are the least polarized candidates. They are often the ones making peace between parties and hammering out the solutions that end up getting passed. 

Depolarizing the country should be our top priority. It is the fastest way to achieve a better life for us all. By supporting politicians who exhibit these qualities and support these reforms, we can achieve a post-partisan world where we all are living our best life. 

A Practical Guide To Tracking Political Donations in the US

In my journey building my own civic tech company, I have spent what feels like thousands of hours looking at every political website and app in existence. I’ve looked deeply into who donates to politicians, how much they donate and how campaigns spend that money. We’ve included a lot of this information in the ChangeRoots app, and if you’re into getting your hands on the data yourself, here is a practical guide that will hopefully make your life easier. 

OpenSecrets

OpenSecrets is by far my favorite site to find out how much candidates are raising, who is giving them money and how that money is being spent.

What I Like: 

  • Design: The website is easily searchable and they at least try to do some data visualization
  • Data: They have crunched huge amounts of data and made it easy to go down rabbit holes
  • Experience: It’s operated by a well-funded non-profit that’s been doing this work for decades
  • Fairly non-partisan: they seem to report more on Republican dark money behavior than Democrats 

Snapshot:

Goods Unite Us

Goods Unite Us is a progressive-leaning mobile app that shows you what candidates companies and their employees donate to. 

What I like: 

  • Search: It’s easy to search
  • Focused: It provides information about company political giving only
  • Design: It has a very readable design.

NYTimes Guide To How Political Donations Work

Back in 2012 the New York Times creative a pretty good interactive guide that shows all of the different ways you can donate in American politics. 

What I like: If you want to learn about money in politics, this guide shows you the various mechanisms people and corporations transparently or secretly fund elections. 

Snapshot:

ProPublica Election Databot

ProPublica does amazing investigative journalism to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions. They’ve created a site that ingests and displays public campaign finance information that almost works great.

What I like:

  • Data: They analyze lots of data in a cool way
  • Design: Their interface is readable and looks good

Snapshot:

FEC.gov

The government’s website tracking political campaign data has improved dramatically in the last few years. You can actually look up details on donors, candidates and campaign spending relatively easy with their new interface. 

4 Ways to Detect Media Bias and Step Outside the Partisan Bubble

Our overall trust in the media has hit an all-time low and it can be difficult to find good news sources exposing you to multiple sides of an issue. Worries about accuracy and bias increase our mistrust while the sheer volume of content can be debilitating when searching for differing yet credible opinions. 

The good news is that recent research suggests that trust in the media is not permanently broken, it can be restored. Also, researchers found that media echo chambers, the idea that things like the Facebook algorithm are limiting our exposure to other views, have been exaggerated. 

Since our mission at ChangeRoots is to end toxic partisanship, we spend a lot of time studying how media increases polarization through biased writing. We use what we learn to provide post-partisan context to political news for our users. Here are some good resources and tips on how to detect bias that I’ve learned from our own journey. 

Read about the same topic from different political perspectives with Allsides.com

Allsides is a great resource to help people step outside their partisan bubbles. Their website publishes articles on the same topic from publications across the political spectrum. They use a rigorous method to rate publicans on a left to right spectrum. Their weekly newsletter does a roundup of stories with snippets from Left, Right and Center reporting on the same topics. 

Check them out and sign up for their newsletter here. Review the methodology they use in assigning ratings here

See the bias and reliability of media organizations with Ad Fontes’ Media Bias Chart

Ad Fontes analyzes news content using a rigorous, non-partisan methodology to rank news for overall reliability and bias. The chart is a bit clunky to navigate at first, but once you stare and click around for a few minutes it becomes a fascinating and insightful resource. My favorite part (nerd alert) is that they have developed a way to score news organizations on their level of reliability in addition to bias. 

See their interactive chart here. Review the methodology they use in assigning ratings here

Get an email with snippets from the left and right each day with The Flip Side

Their website says it best, ”see the whole political picture with the points from both sides in one easy 5-minute email a day.” They feature one topic per day and pull quotes from various media on both the left and right to give you a quick way to see how each side is framing the issue. I like how they limit it to one topic a day, but give you five or more snippets from each side on that one topic. This gives you a wider variety of perspectives within the conservative and progressive worlds. 

Sign up here.

Guide to Spotting Media Bias by Allsides

Allsides (mentioned above) has compiled an excellent and detailed guide on the nuance of how to spot bias in the media. It breaks down the difference between spin, presenting opinions as fact, sensationalism and much more. The guide is long, but it has great examples of highlighting different elements of bias within actual articles. If you don’t want to read all the words, I recommend skimming the examples they include throughout the guide. 

The guide can be found here

A Brief History of Bipartisanship

When partisan contempt has been darkest, surprising collaborations have improved prosperity for millions

A Brief History of Bipartisanship

Toxic partisanship continues to deepen in America. We are in a period of unusual political bitterness. While our leaders call each other names and prey upon our fears, we face massive issues like poverty, debt, climate change, immigration and healthcare that seem impossible to solve. For many of us, we don’t feel like we’ve ever seen a functional government. However, our own history teaches us bipartisan action can happen in swift and surprising ways on the most intractable of issues. 

I want to take a quick tour through our history to highlight moments where our leaders found common ground in unlikely moments. 

Lincoln’s Team of Rivals

Republican Abraham Lincoln beat three Republicans to win the nomination and then a Democrat to win the presidency in 1860. Once elected, he appointed all three rivals as well as a prominent Democrat to his cabinet. It would be as if Elizabeth Warren was elected president and appointed Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Mitt Romney to her cabinet.

World War II Recovery

The Marshall Plan, which gave billions in aid to help rebuild Western Europe after the war, passed with bipartisan support where the Republicans controlled Congress and the Democrats controlled the White House. Most consider the Marshall Plan very successful because the countries involved experienced a rise in their gross national products of 15 to 25 percent during the plan.

Outlawing Discrimination

The Civil Rights Act was a landmark civil rights law that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It was passed with over 60% of both parties voting for it. The bill was supported by northern Democrats but was fiercely opposed by southern Democrats. It could not be passed without Republican support. Republican leaders joined forces with northern Democrats to pass the bill with 71 votes in the Senate. 

Saving Aid to the Poor

Originally established by in the ’20s, discontinued during the Great Depression and re-established in the 1960s, the food stamp program came under fire from Republicans for being too costly. In 1977, common ground was found by Democratic senator George McGovern and Republican senator Bob Dole, who together advocated for streamlining the program by cutting costs, resolving eligibility problems, and making it easier for participants to receive their food stamps.

Saving Retirement Benefits

Republican President Reagan campaigned to reduce the size of government yet confronted a large Democratic majority in the House who fiercely supported Social Security. Social Security was going to run a deficit if nothing was done. Despite this and other differences, a bipartisan compromise on Social Security was reached in 1983. It stands in hindsight as about as striking a breakthrough imaginable in a deeply polarized atmosphere. The 1983 agreement succeeded in extending the trust fund’s solvency for the next few generations.

Saving Welfare

Despite a bitterly divided government in 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress passed and Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law one of the most sweeping changes to the country’s welfare system. The legislation, which ended a 60-year federal guarantee of aid to the poor, angered many Democrats, but also irked conservatives who considered the bill’s incentives to be too generous. Regardless, nearly every House and Senate Republican voted in favor of the measure, and a majority of Senate Democrats supported it, too. After the bill’s passage, the country saw a sharp decline in poverty rates and in the number of people on the welfare rolls.

Massive Education Reform

One of Republican President George W. Bush’s first initiatives after taking office was an overhaul of standards-based education programs. It stalled until Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, one of the strongest proponents of education reform and also one of the president’s most powerful detractors, lent his name to the bill that it gained enough support to pass with bipartisan support. 

Reducing Money in Politics

Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold and Republican Sen. John McCain, both ardent supporters of campaign finance reform, believed they needed a bipartisan reform bill to address the problem of money in politics. The bipartisan bill passed in 2002 changed how donations could be used to support political parties and candidates and demanded that television campaign ads clearly identify who paid for them.

Massive Medical Research Expansion

A sweeping bipartisan agreement to expand medical research was signed into law in December 2016. The bill easily passed both chambers of Congress due to the bipartisan initiatives that were included in it. It provided funds to expand biomedical research to find cures and treatments for various illnesses and diseases as well as to study the human brain and mental disorders. It also allowed for more collaboration among government and private-sector researchers and provided for faster drug approval. 

“The Night is Always Darkest Before the Dawn”

While things may feel hopeless, history shows us how we can step outside of our partisan boxes and into a post-partisan world. Stay hopeful.


A shoutout to this Bipartisan Policy Center research for greatly informing this article.

Jake Sandler is CEO and cofounder of ChangeRoots, a startup on a mission to end toxic partisanship by empowering Millennials to wield micro donations as positive and negative reinforcement for politicians.

4 Things You Need to Know About Partisanship and Voting Behavior

  1. Deep thinkers are more likely to be blind partisans

There was a study done to determine which type of people are most likely to blindly follow whatever the leaders of their political party tell them. To start out they measured two things in each of the participants; how tribal you were, meaning how much you cared about being part of your political team, and how deep of a thinker you were. 

The researchers predicted that people who were very tribal, but not- so-deep-thinkers, would be the ones most likely to blindly follow their party leaders. They were surprised to find out that it was actually the deep-thinkers who were the most likely to blindly follow their party. They concluded that the deep-thinkers were more blindly partisan than their not-so-deep-thinking peers because they were able to convince themselves with lots of fancy reasons why whatever their party was telling them to think was the right thing to think. Armed with many reasons why they are right, deep-thinkers become more attached to their positions and sometimes delude themselves into thinking their positions reflect rational consistency rather than blind party loyalty. 

  1. How Different Values Lead Conservatives and Liberals to Judge Each Other

New research has shed light on how liberals and conservatives prioritize different values. According to Jonathan Haidt, there are five fundamental values people prioritize when it comes to politics: Compassion, Fairness, Loyalty, Respect for Authority and Purity. Liberals typically prioritize Compassion and Fairness and don’t really care about the other three. Conservatives tend to prioritize all five values equally. 

As humans when we see someone violate one of our core values we tend to judge them less morally good. To use an example, when a conservative perceives a liberal to violate their sense of Loyalty, often they will think less of the liberal because they don’t respect their world view. This could look like a liberal wanting to spend less on the military to better fund social programs. The conservative might perceive this as disloyal to the troops whereas the liberal believes it would be fairer to distribute funds differently. The liberal doesn’t care about Loyalty and can’t understand why Loyalty would outweigh Fairness. On the flip side, the conservative can’t understand how the liberal could be disrespectful to the military. 

Fundamental values shape our world view. Understanding our own values and recognizing that others have different values than us gives us a better chance of finding common ground and compassion. 

  1. Experts predict record-breaking voter turnout in 2020

Experts on both sides of the aisle think voter turnout may reach new heights in 2020. Signs of political interest, from the number of small-donor contributions made to presidential candidates to the viewership for cable news, are all spiking. But the clearest sign that high turnout may be approaching in 2020 is that it already arrived in 2018. In last year’s midterm, nearly 120 million people voted, about 35 million more than in the previous midterm. The 2018 level represented the largest share of eligible voters to turn out in a midterm year since 1914.

  1. Young Americans are voting in record numbers

Turnout among voters under 30 last year jumped to about 36 percent of eligible voters, compared with just 20 percent in 2014. This is an unusually high number of voters under 30 coming out to vote in a midterm election. If this trend continues we could see a record number of voters under 30 actually voting in the 2020 election. 

Generational Breakdown


Summary

To recap, deep thinkers are more likely to be blind partisans, fundamental differences in values lead liberals and conservatives to judge each other, we could see record voter turnout in 2020 and younger Americans are voting at the highest rates in decades.

What is Bipartisanship, Really?

Simply put, bipartisanship is working with the other party to get something done. It’s opposite, partisanship, is working only to get done what your party wants, at the expense of the other party. 

Zero-Sum Partisans

Partisans believe the world is zero-sum, meaning they believe there is a fixed amount of prosperity to go around and they need to fight to capture as much of it as possible for their team. Zero-sum thinking is dangerous because it splits the world into groups at war with each other. In a zero-sum world, attacking those in other groups becomes ethically acceptable because you are protecting your own. In our modern world, this mindset has evolved into the idea that it is better to sabotage the other party than to compromise in order to get the W for your side. 

Positive Sum Bi-partisans

Those who believe in bipartisanship believe the world is positive-sum, that prosperity can be increased for everyone if we work together. A positive-sum mindset believes that the best ideas come out of a process where different perspectives are taken into consideration and an entirely new solution arises that neither group thought of. It sees the other party as an ally in making the world a better place. 

In practice, bipartisanship can look like a Republican Senator voting on a bill introduced by a Democratic Senator. It can be a Democratic President nominating a Republican judge to the Supreme Court. Bi-partisans support the best solution for all people, regardless of who the idea came from. 

Notable Bipartisanship

While we mostly focus on how bitterly partisan the country has become, as a nation we have a rich history of bipartisanship. A few notable examples include:

  • Abraham Lincoln’s team of rivals. Lincoln beat three Republicans to win the nomination and then the presidency in 1860. Once elected, he appointed all three rivals as well as a Democrat to his cabinet. It would be like if Elizabeth Warren was elected president and appointed Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Mitt Romney to her cabinet.
  • Democrat Harry Truman appoints Republican Supreme Court Justice. Three months after FDR’s death, new Democratic President Harry S Truman was faced with an open Supreme Court seat. Truman broke with his party and chose Republican Ohio Sen. Harold Burton for the Court. It was an olive branch to congressional Republicans—and a chance for a new president to find common ground with the congressional opposition.
  • Civil Rights Act. The landmark civil rights law that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was passed with over 60% of both parties voting for it.

So How’s Bipartisanship Lookin’ Today? 

Acts of obstruction by each party are increasing. Fewer bills are being passed each year. Political revenge has become normal. We have seen an increase in gridlock over the last decades at a time when the problems we face – climate change, healthcare, debt, immigration – threaten our republic. 

What Can We Do About it? Get Nerdy

There are a number of technical democracy reforms – changes to how we elect politicians – that are proven to decrease partisanship, increase bipartisanship, boost voter turnout and decrease gridlock. Let’s get nerdy for a second. 

Expanded and Multi-member Districts

One of these reforms is called multi-member districts (nine states use this method today). Today we have a system where one congressperson is elected per district. We have 435 congresspeople and 435 districts. In an expanded and multimember district world, we’d reduce the number of districts, increase the number of congresspeople and elect multiple members in each district. See the example below. 

Ranked Choice Voting

Today we have a winner-take-all system where we can only vote for one candidate in the primary and general election and whoever wins the majority of votes wins. Under ranked choice voting, voters to rank candidates on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated, and second preference choices are allocated to the remaining candidates. The process is repeated until someone obtains a majority. 

Will These Really Help? 

Research shows that if we passed multimember districts and ranked-choice voting the country would have far more competitive elections, fewer extreme candidates and more bipartisan politicians. If these sound technical and weird, I get it. One way to think about it is to think of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We have been using the same voting methods over and over, and we have a bitterly partisan country that won’t pass any meaningful solutions. We need to try something new and the truth is that these reforms have been researched and tested for decades. They work. 

What Matters in a President

As citizens, we only get a tiny glimpse into our who our presidential candidates really are. Information warfare is waged by campaigns and the media, who seem to all have an agenda. Yet we are tasked with making a huge decision on who should lead the free world.

How can we cut through the bullshit and make sense of what matters? How should we evaluate a presidential candidate? What factors matter? How much should we weigh one factor against another? It is all very overwhelming which is why most people procrastinate thinking about it until election day or opt out entirely.

The fact we get to decide for ourselves is the beauty of democracy. The fact that we have to decide for ourselves is the mess of democracy.

I’ve spent my life thinking about how to compare politicians (yes, I know that is super nerdy). Despite spending years in my head on the topic, I’ve only recently begun to try to get scientific about it. I put together this little framework for identifying things about candidates that matter to me. I’ve tried to stick with things that are measurable since things like integrity (which I would love to use) are nearly impossible to measure. Here it is, I hope it helps.

I want a candidate who:

Prioritizes regular people over the elite

Where a person spends their time reveals their priorities. Money is, unfortunately, necessary to get elected in this day and age. A politician who raises more money from small donors reveals to me that they prioritize ordinary people over the wealthy.

Data: OpenSecrets tracks all fundraising data, see the 2020 presidential report here

Works across the aisle

An increase in partisanship has led to an increase in gridlock. Fewer solutions are being passed at a time when our problems are growing larger than ever. I think the best solutions incorporate ideas from different perspectives. I truly believe a politician who is willing to listen to other perspectives and work with the other party not only increases their chances of developing quality solutions, but also getting them passed.

Data: Georgetown University has developed a sophisticated way to measure bipartisanship, see the scores here

Gets shit done

Some politicians are especially skilled at shepherding bills through the crazy bureaucratic process to actually become law. They have the determination, relationships and problem-solving ability to navigate the complexities of passing legislation. I think we need more politicians with this skill to help us solve our biggest challenges.

Data: Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia developed a sophisticated way to measure legislator effectiveness, see the scores here

Supports reforms that depolarize

I think toxic partisanship is the single biggest obstacle to politicians passing big laws that matter. The methods we use to vote, the way we draw districts and the rules around campaigning have a big impact on toxic partisanship. Some methods (like our current ones) make it more likely we elect extreme candidates. Other methods make it more likely reasonable people win election. I want politicians who support changes that would make it easy for reasonable people to get elected. More reasonable people in office mean more solutions passed and a better life for all.

Data: A famed Harvard professor has graded each 2020 presidential candidate on their democracy reform stances, see the grades here

Has experience relevant to running a nation

Personally, I’d love a President with executive, legislative, foreign affairs and military experience all rolled into one human. A former CEO, governor, district attorney, congressperson, diplomat and marine would get me real excited. While I don’t think specific experience is necessary for being a good President, having been-there-before matters. A deep understanding of how each complex apparatus — executive, legislative, diplomatic and military — operates, makes it more likely a candidate will be successful in their role as our leader.

Data: Honestly, I think Wikipedia is one of the best sources to look at a candidate’s experience. 

Supports my ‘non-negotiable’ positions

There are only a few policy stances that are non-negotiable to me. They are closer to general principles rather than specific policies. If a candidate meets all the criteria above, but does not support the things that matter most to me, I wouldn’t support them. 

Data: Good guides that breakdown the policies of each 2020 candidate include: AxiosProConOn The IssuesNPRPoliticoWashington Post.

Has clear positions on major policies

I want to know where a candidate stands on all major policies before deciding if they have earned my vote. I am suspicious of any candidate who won’t publish a clear plan on big policy issues. I actually have more respect for a candidate who has a position I don’t agree with than a candidate who won’t take a position at all.

Data: These same guides do a good job of calling out whose not taking positions on certain issues: AxiosProConOn The IssuesNPRPoliticoWashington Post

Where science meets art

Now that we have our criteria, how do we compare it all against each other? What matters more; experience, prioritizing regular people or policy positions? Welcome to the beautiful mess of democracy, there is no right answer, you get to decide.

Making it simple

In the past, I wished for an app where I could select what policies and factors matter most to me, then see which candidate I best match with. I scoured the internet for this and couldn’t find it. So I decided to start a company to do just that. At ChangeRoots, we’re developing a simple app to compare politicians on what matters (plus we do some other cool shit). It launches February 2020. Take a peek at what we’re up to.

3 Ways to Make A Difference: Changing The World With Political Awareness

It’s easy to feel powerless given our politics today. It feels like the media, big money and the elite are manipulating the system to their benefit at the expense of everybody else. You’re not wrong. But we can’t let that continue. Each of us can do our small part to make our republic better so that we can all live our best life. 

Understand toxic partisanship

There’s nothing inherently bad about being a proud Democrat or Republican. However, it can quickly become damaging when people consider those in the other party to be their enemy. Learning more about how we became so partisan and what forces make us feel that way gives you the skills to prevent yourself and others from becoming dangerously partisan. 

For the bookworm: Love Your Enemies 

For the article reader: No Hate Left Behind

For the data wiz: HiddenTribes

For the podcaster: More Divided Than Ever: Excavating the Roots Of Our Political Landscape

Define what matters to you

Some of us have a specific idea of what we want in a politician, most of us do not. We don’t know what things we should value. Should we care about policy? Experience? Effectiveness? Character? How should we compare which factor matters more than another? If I think a candidate is smart and honest, but they support policies I don’t like, how should I feel? Unfortunately, there is no objectively right answer, but there is likely a right answer for you. Thinking about this in a structured way can help. 

Since our brain likes to feel like it is consistent and logical, it’s best to come up with a framework that makes sense to you, before inserting any real person into it. This way, you may feel like you’ve picked someone with a bit more thought than who you’d rather have a beer with (but, hey we’re a democracy, so do what feels right boo). 

Because it’s complicated and nuanced, most people feel overwhelmed about the prospect of figuring out who they should support. This is a big reason why we tend to ignore the political process until there are only two options left to choose from…which has not turned out so well for us. 

If you need a place to start, I created a one-page(ish) framework to evaluate the 2020 presidential candidate’s. It can be found here: What matters in a President: A framework for evaluating politicians.

Micro donate to your favorite candidate

Adding money to politics may not seem like a helpful thing on the surface, but political contributions are a fundamental part of our democratic process, at least right now. We can use it for good or opt-out and let the big companies and the elite wield it for their self-interest. 

Once you have an idea of which candidate you like, sending them a small donation has an impact beyond just helping them buy more cheesy TV ads. It sends a signal to the candidate and to other people that this person is worth supporting – social scientists call this social norming. Take two candidates, Ashley and Will. Ashley has received donations from 20 million people while Will has received donations from 100,000 people. If we have no other information about either of them, we will have a more positive view of Ashley because more people support her. This is why likes and views dictate everything in the social media world. 

If there’s a candidate you support and you can spare the change, send them a small donation and tell your friends – you’ll be helping them more than you know. 

Donate to Democrats: ActBlue

Donate to Republicans: WinRed

Donate to Independents: The google machine

Small steps add up

Politics is simply the name for how we – as a country – try to take into account the opinions of over 300 million people. Looking at the United States from that vantage, it’s pretty bananas we’re able to get anything done. If we each take a little time to understand what we want a bit better, life can get better for all of us. Remember, you have influence, you just need to claim it.

Creating a Post-Partisan America: Why I Started ChangeRoots

This month, my co-founder and I are launching a new app that enables individuals to use their quarters to reward or punish politicians for their actions. It’s called ChangeRoots.

My ultimate motivation is to contribute to a world where it is easy for people to live a whole and good life. Our contribution, ChangeRoots, is a high bandwidth interface between people and elected leaders. I believe this will lead to a significantly more adaptable governing system.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin

Government & the Survival of The Fittest

Each country’s governing system functions like an organism. There are traits, characteristics and internal structures that interrelate to each other in complex ways. Similar to a biological system, the most adaptable governing systems best integrate change. The systems that best integrate change best empower their people to thrive.

We are at a critical moment in the evolution of the American system. The integrity of our governing structures are weakening due to massive changes in culture that have been amplified by technology. Incremental improvement is no longer sufficient to prevent a collapse, we need a quantum leap in the adaptability of our governing system to constructively integrate these changes.

The Arab Spring demonstrated just how powerfully modern connectivity can throw rigid governing systems into chaos. While our system is not as rigid as those in the Middle East, we cannot ignore the warning signs: trust in government and media are at all time lows, political tribalism is increasing at a frightening pace and marginalized groups are rising up more forcefully than we’ve seen in decades.

Throughout history, culture has brought pressure upon governments to adapt or be torn down. However, unlike prior generations, technology today has the power to exponentially amplify that pressure. This creates a greater need for systems to fluidly integrate change.

While this may seem daunting there is real hope. Powerful trends are infusing adaptability into our system: younger generations are engaging to create change at the highest rates in our history; elites are dedicating more resources to support the disadvantaged and solve structural problems than ever before; and grassroots movements on all sides are gaining momentum.

Over the last few decades individuals have harnessed technology to help themselves become more adaptable than ever before. We are now at a place where we can similarly harness technology to amplify adaptability in our governing system. With ChangeRoots, we built a platform that contributes to that amplification by increasing the bandwidth between people and elected leaders.

Closing The Gap Between The People And The Elected

Bandwidth, as Elon Musk describes it, is the speed, ease and quality of transmission between two subjects.

To illustrate the point let’s take two subjects, information and people. An encyclopedia is a low bandwidth interface between information and people, while Google’s search engine is high bandwidth. In another example, writing letters is a low bandwidth interface between people and people where FaceTime is high bandwidth. Within this framework, we saw an opportunity to create a high bandwidth interface between people and elected leaders.

ChangeRoots is a political news feed where a “like” sends a quarter to a politician and a “dislike” sends one to their opponent. Reading a feed is simple, clicking “like” or “dislike” takes minimal time and contributing to campaigns has a meaningful impact on the likelihood a candidate gets elected. Now, with ChangeRoots, we increase the speed, ease and quality of transmission between people and leaders by creating a simple, near-instant way for people to provide high impact feedback to elected officials.

We believe this will create an environment where politicians get meaningful feedback on their actions between elections; people effectively manage the performance of politicians; and people make informed hiring and firing decisions at election time. In this environment, talent (politicians) and performance (their alignment with ordinary people) should improve which would increase adaptability throughout the system.

Our Post-Partisan Future

The next version of ChangeRoots will increase ease, speed and quality by expanding to state and local politics, adding nonprofits to the platform, rating the integrity of politicians and connecting members of our community who share similar beliefs. This will make it easy, fast and impactful to contribute resources where they have greatest impact.

We recognize the potential for abuse so we are designing our post-partisanship ethos within the system. By intentionally designing our values into the platform we are taking a stand against the unintended consequences inherent to neutrality. This stand will undoubtedly evoke criticism, which I look forward to because it will help us improve. I invite you to check out what we’re up to and let us know what we could do better.

I truly believe that a post-partisan world is the next evolutionary step in how we govern America: where we go beyond political parties, have a bias for integrity, listen to all sides and — above all else — value win-win solutions.If the downfall of great civilizations has been a lack of adaptability then perhaps we have the opportunity to evolve into a democracy that fluidly responds to the people so that it can withstand a collapse from the inside and instead become a true government of the people, by the people, for the people.