What do Republicans and Democrats have in common?
According to former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, increased partisanship.
McMullin and two former congressmen, Patrick Murphy (D-FL) and David Jolly (R-FL), met at the BYU Varsity Theatre on Oct. 25 to discuss partisanship and potential solutions for political polarization.
The event was a joint effort between the BYU Center for Conflict Resolution, the J. Rueben Clark Law School and the Village Square, a non-partisan group that promotes civil political discourse. McMullin and Jolly are also members of Stand Up Republic, a nonprofit designed to “defend democratic ideals, norms and institutions.”
McMullin said Murphy and Jolly have been touring the United States discussing polarization and gridlock.
Murphy described himself as a Democrat who represented a Republican district, and Jolly described himself as a former Republican who represented a Democratic district.
Murphy, a certified public accountant who said he was a Republican before deciding to become involved in national level politics, said he supported acts to “save millions” in government spending while he was in office. He described himself as “fiscally responsible and socially progressive.”
When he was elected to Congress, Murphy said he was shocked to see how divided the representatives were.
“You don’t get to meet each other,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
After he was elected, Murphy went to dinner with a newly elected Republican member of the house.
He said he was surprised to learn they agreed on most issues. Together the two identified $350 billion in what Murphy said they saw as unneeded federal spending, and they decided to work together to solve the issue.
Murphy said the congressman approached him soon afterwards because party leadership told him he couldn’t work with Murphy, because it would make it difficult to run a Republican candidate against him in the next election.
“Both parties are playing this game,” Murphy said. “It’s become toxic.”
Murphy identified several key causes of the polarized status quo. He said partisanship issues have existed in American politics for a long time, but “they’ve all gotten a lot worse in the last 10 years.”
According to Murphy, gerrymandering is the single biggest structural problem causing political polarization and gridlock. Gerrymandering involves designing congressional district boundaries to produce certain election results.
Murphy said 90 percent of districts are gerrymandered to the point where one party is guaranteed to win elections, which incentivizes candidates to appeal primarily to highly partisan voters who participate in party primaries.
Roughly 15 percent of voters participate in primaries, effectively meaning 15 percent of voters determine election results in 90 percent of congressional districts, Murphy said.
Though both parties gerrymander, he said “republicans have done a better job.”
Murphy also criticized constant television coverage of politics. “There are cameras in every room all the time,” he said.
He said cameras deter politicians to have meaningful — albeit boring — conversations and that Washington is “Hollywood for ugly people.”
Murphy said a polarized media landscape played a role in the problem, especially on social media.
Murphy also said the elimination of earmark spending meant there was “no negotiating power” in Congress. Earmark spending is spending allocated in specific states or districts that is attached to existing legislation, often added in exchange for support of the bill from that area’s representative.
He said lawmakers are unlikely to form social relationships because changes to scheduling enable them to live in their constituencies, not in Washington.
Murphy encouraged political involvement and called politicians followers, not leaders.
He said he was motivated to become involved in politics after seeing government dysfunction and “borderline cover-up” in response to the BP Oil Spill in 2010 and the anger expressed by the Tea Party movement during the time.
“Regardless of your affiliation,” he said. “That’s a problem.”
Murphy said he asked himself who he was to sit and complain. Instead he studied 25 political major political issues and positions and then decided to run for Congress as a Democrat.
Jolly, who was a Republican while in office but recently became an independent, said he agreed with Murphy’s points.
“Political labels and ideology are in the eye of the beholder,” he said. Jolly said he has been called moderate, right-wing and a “progressive RINO,” an acronym for Republican in name only.
Jolly said he used to be a Republican primarily because of economic issues. He said he had a “quixotic love affair” with the Tea Party’s advancement of conservative economic principles, but struggled with the movement’s divisiveness.
Jolly said his relationship with the Republican Party was strained when he began to reconsider his opposition to same-sex marriage. He described his realization that same-sex marriage should be protected by the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause as whiplash.
Jolly said it was President Trump and the movement behind his election that ultimately drove him from the Republican Party, though he was reluctant to give up his affiliation until he found out he and his wife were expecting a child.
“I want my daughter to know we stayed and fought,” he said referring to his time in the Republican Party.
Jolly said he saw solutions to polarization and gridlock through reversing the problematic elements Murphy described.
“All of these structural challenges obscure decision-making of public officials,” he said.
Jolly emphasized the need for ideological diversity in congressional districts. He said doing so would make races more competitive, outcomes less dependent on party primaries and representatives more responsive to the varied perspectives of their constituents.
“We’re not suggesting all the answers are in the middle,” Jolly said. “We’re talking about bipartisanship, not moderation of ideology.”
McMullin said he agreed with Jolly and Murphy, and called for a “new political super-identity” of Republicans, Democrats and independents who oppose polarization and support keeping political races competitive.
Jolly said he agreed.
“Our memories of politics are often very, very short,” he said, citing Ross Perot’s 1992 relatively successful independent bid for the presidency. Perot won 18 percent of the vote, more than any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt.
All three panelists agreed there was a need for increased female involvement in government. Murphy said he had no doubt that if there were more women in every level of government, it would be more effective.
Jolly said the over-representation of men in government was a result of “broad sociological challenges,” including a limited access to professional networks and fundraising.
“The exciting thing is, that’s changing,” he said. “’92 was the year of the woman. This year is going to make that seem like child’s play.”