By: Chessie Reece
On Friday, September 22nd, House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer visited the LBJ School of Public Affairs as part of the Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Throughout his service as President of the Maryland Senate to House Majority Leader and now Whip, Rep. Hoyer has been a widely-known and well-respected figure. He certainly revealed the wisdom of experience and historical analysis at Friday’s event, answering students’ questions for more than an hour after his own brief remarks.
With political polarization at the forefront of American society, Rep. Hoyer received many questions about why partisanship has increased. Hoyer claimed that recent advancements in technology are a key factor. Nowadays, data on voter preferences can be collected with a never-before-seen degree of specificity. As a result, policymakers’ perspectives are narrowed and the interests of the general public are lost. This leads representatives to prioritize the problems important to only their individual constituent bases and has resulted in some states redistricting according to demographics and voting tendencies. Thus, according to Hoyer, technology has allowed gerrymandering and a highly-partisan focus to affect the quality of the representation members provide for their constituents.
In response to questions about how to bridge the divide between parties, Rep. Hoyer explained that the Republican party seems more deeply divided today than the Democratic party. He cited John Boehner’s resignation, the budget fight tanking tax reform, an inability to advance President Trump’s legislative agenda, and the rejection of all traditional “Republican establishment” candidates during the 2016 Presidential election as evidence of internal fractures. Upon pushback from the audience regarding a small-but-contentious 2016 Democratic Presidential candidate pool, Hoyer brought up the history of the Affordable Care Act: Democratic representatives have never wavered in their unanimous support of the ACA because of a shared party belief that all Americans should have affordable healthcare.
Representative Hoyer predicted that the Democrats will win the House back in 2018. Historically, the minority party improves their numbers in midterm elections, especially when the majority-party President is unpopular. Hoyer also laid out two political reasons for his prediction. One, Democrats are now capitalizing on anger over Republican failure to accomplish Trump’s major agenda points. Victory in the midterms will come especially as those who voted “against Hillary” (versus “for Trump”) take to Democratic candidates positing themselves as more competent alternatives to their current representatives. Two, Republicans are largely focused on issues which do not affect but a small majority of citizens on the far-right. As Hoyer put it, “95% of Americans wake up with issues regarding jobs, roads, and the economy…not abortion or going to buy a gun.” As a result, the anger and hostility which characterized the 2016 election will subside, and “democracy will correct itself” by choosing more rational, relatable Democratic representatives in 2018.
Most of Representative Hoyer’s ideas were exactly what one might have expected to hear from a leader in a political party recently dealt a serious, devastating electoral blow. Throughout the event, he maintained a reflective yet hopeful tone, relying mostly on logic and facts to advance his points while not overly-villainizing the Republican party or inflating Democratic successes. However, it was not until the end of the event that he dropped his thoughtful defense of the Democratic party and began offering tangible prescriptions for how to rectify the divisiveness in American society and produce lasting future change beyond the 2018 midterms. He urged women to use Hillary Clinton’s defeat as encouragement to run for more political offices. He discussed holding representatives more accountable for enacting evidence-based policies and reforms, and espoused the need to fund nonpartisan agencies like the Congressional Budget Office in order to continue their work informing the public.
In response to this event, I would urge representatives from both parties to abandon some of their prewritten, party-loyal answers and instead add a more personal touch to events with the public. While Rep. Hoyer’s responses were factual, persuasive and, in some cases inspiring, all of America is in a period of political soul-searching. We look to our most respected representatives to provide us with not just some soul, but some heart. We want to feel what Steny Hoyer is saying about democracy and know that he feels it, too, and we only truly got that connectedness near the end of Friday’s discussion. To solve the current crisis of leadership, all candidates need to prove their ability to unite across party lines not just with hard, factual evidence, but with the character of a passionate leader.