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Losing faith in the democratic process? Let's make the American government responsible and accountable

What does it mean for our nation and our state when three of every four of us in Oregon think that our democracy is now "more at risk"? And what can we do to fix it?

The Oregon Values and Beliefs Center's February survey, which elicited a long list of thoughts on those questions, captures insights into why Oregonians have become more pessimistic about how we govern ourselves and what they think we should do to counter the forces that threaten our democracy.

COURTESY PHOTO - Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber.After diving deep into the survey numbers, and reading more than 2,000 comments from respondents, I came away troubled by Oregonians' lack of confidence in the health of our democracy, but also encouraged that we can still find common ground on how to restore its vitality.

Let's begin with the 74% who think our democracy is either "a lot more at risk" (58%) or "a little more at risk" (16%). Their comments on why they see such risk reflect both predictable partisan anger and a more widely shared concern about the parties themselves, the effects of divisive partisanship and the failures of government.

• Among respondents who pointed a finger at either party, those blaming Republicans outnumbered those blaming Democrats by a ratio of 3 to 1.

• But the larger share, representing more than half of all those who provided comments, looked beyond the parties to bemoan a sense of divisiveness, loss of civility, an increase in hate and violence as well as the failures and even corruption of government.

As someone who worked in, and still believes in, government, that's hard to hear. But, it also signals an opening to move beyond "my side-ism" and look for shared solutions with appeal across the political spectrum.

Another bright spot: respondents are less likely to see division in Oregon than in the U.S. (74% vs. 88%) and notably fewer of us are "very worried" about this development here vs. what we see in the nation as a whole (35% vs. 53%).

Steps to 'a healthy government'

We can also find some modestly hopeful signs in Oregonians' views of the hot button issues of a stolen Presidential election (only 19% hold that view) and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol (a similar 18% think of it as a "reasonable protest" or a false flag event fomented by Trump's opponents). That may still be concerning to some, but to me it's a "super minority."

However, the views I found most revealing emerged from a deeper dive into what respondents perceive at the core of what ails our democracy and what they favor to restore "a healthy government."

Leading the list of what ails us:

• "The American economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful" (78% agree strongly or somewhat agree); and,

• "Traditional parties and politicians don't care."

Connecting these two systemic criticisms is a more personal concern: "We can no longer share honest opinions with each other in our workplaces, schools and social gatherings" (71%).

These views are corroborated in responses to another question asked of those (53%) who are very or somewhat dissatisfied with "the United States federal form of government." Their reasons range from "built on classism, controlled with those with the most money" (30%), "unable to get common sense things done" (19%), "plagued by partisan infighting" (15%) and "beholden to special interests" (12%).

And, if the strongly felt need to "share honest opinions with each other" is a compelling plea for more open dialogue, a later question highlighted what we should be talking about. Here's what Oregonians think are very or critically important features that can contribute to a healthy government:

• "Equal opportunity to participate in elections and representation" (87%);

• "Officials and institutions are accountable to the public" (86%);

• "Equal participation, equal treatment and due process for all" (86%);

• "A legal framework that is enforced equally, impartially and uniformly" (84%); and,

• "Institutions are responsive to problems in a reasonable time" (81%).

• Principles like these can be easy to agree to but harder to advance in the form of concrete reforms. But I'd advertise the agenda for a big-tent conversation about fixing our democracy, not in terms of MAGA vs. anti-MAGA, but, instead, of MAGRA – Make American Government Responsible and Accountable.

Once in the tent, we can begin the sharing of honest opinions about some of the more specific ideas advanced by the comments I read through in this survey:

• Campaign finance reform;

• Open primaries and/or other forms of more representative choices in elections: and,

• Controls on the excesses of social media.

That last item surprised me, but it fits with the desire for a more honest and balanced sharing of opinions.

Let the MAGRA discussions begin.

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber. He lives near Independence and can be reached at @TimNesbittOR. The Oregon Values and Beliefs Center is an independent, nonpartisan charitable organization to provide voice to all Oregonians in statewide and local policymaking, planning and communications. Learn more at oregonvbc.org.

Let your voice be heard

To ensure all voices are represented in discussions of public policy, the non-profit Oregon Values and Beliefs Center is recruiting a broad cross-section of Oregonians to participate in monthly surveys. Selected panelists earn points for their participation, which can be redeemed for cash or donated to a charity. To learn more visit oregonvbc.org/about-the-panel/.


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