Almost two years ago, on June 14, 2017, former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake was standing between home plate and first base on a baseball field in Alexandria, Va., when a volley of shots rang out. Seconds later, Representative Steve Scalise (R-La.) was hit in the hip. As Flake rushed to plug his colleague’s bullet wound with his baseball glove, he couldn’t help but wonder: “Why us? How could someone look out at a bunch of middle aged men playing baseball and see the enemy?”
According to Flake, such is the result of hyper-partisan politics gone awry.
Flake spoke on the importance of depolarizing the American political system and defusing hostile partisanship in a lecture on Monday.
“Virtually all of the political incentives are now wrong. On any given issue that we deal with in Congress, the political incentives say, ‘rush to your tribe, rush to the extreme, plant yourself, and don’t move,’” Flake said. “Don’t indicate for a minute that you might be open to persuasion, that you might change your mind, because as soon as you do, you’re a victim from both sides.”
Throughout his 18-year career in Washington, Flake suffered the consequences of straddling party lines. In 2017, his approval ratings in Arizona dipped to 18 percent.
During the talk, Flake lamented the disintegration of cordial personal relationships among members in Congress, when “the children of Democratic members of Congress and Republican members of Congress went to the same schools, played on the same sports teams, the families socialized together, recreated together, worshipped together.”
“The bonds that they built on the weekends outlasted the partisanship of the weekdays,” Flake said.
Now long gone, Flake also regretted the loss of congressional “pairing,” a tradition in which, if a member couldn’t make a vote, a member of the other party would vote the other way to even it out in deference to their counterparts across the aisle.
However, according to Flake the civility is long gone, and in its place is vitriolic intransigence.
For example, when former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords was wounded in a mass shooting, Republican leaders chastised Flake for standing up to help Giffords up at the State of the Union because it was perceived as support for President Obama.
During his time in Congress, Flake attempted to cultivate relationships across the aisle, sometimes in unorthodox ways. In 2014, he and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) intentionally stranded themselves on a deserted island in the Marshall Islands in order to prove Democrats and Republicans could get along. The pair brought no food, no water, and only a machete between the two of them.
As for broader solutions to this polarization, Flake said that the current situation “won’t change until the voters value those who will occasionally stand in the middle.”
He said that senators should increase their cooperation in bipartisan “gangs” and protect the institution of the filibuster in order to keep parties accountable to one another.
However, Flake expressed his concern for the future of his party under Trump’s leadership, especially if the President wins re-election.
“You can look at four years as an aberration of some kind, but eight years is more of shift,” he said.
Flake noted he would’ve liked to run for a second term, but instead chose to retire from Congress after six years in the Senate.
“I couldn’t reconcile what I would have to do to stay there,” Flake said. “I would’ve had to accept positions that I could not accept — Muslim ban, positions on immigration, trade — and condone behavior that I do not condone.”
Ultimately, he called for an end to the demonization in Congress and society at large.
“There will always be partisanship. It’s part of the process,” Flake said. “We can agree and disagree but we can’t consider those on the other side of the aisle enemies.”