My field trip to Congress

I got five — five! — minutes to testify about how to fix it.

Amanda Ripley

The other day, I got an unexpected invitation: could I come testify about how Congress could get itself out of toxic conflict?

On the one hand, hallelujah! This is the question that Congress should be asking itself every single day, if it ever wants to function again.

On the other hand, oh Lord. That’s a really hard question, maybe the hardest, and I’d only have five minutes to answer it.

The hearing was held on a hot summer morning before the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. There are two important things to know about this committee: first, it’s truly bipartisan, which is extremely rare. Half Republican, half Democrat. Secondly, their whole purpose is to make Congress less terrible. It is, in other words, the most countercultural Congressional committee you’ve never heard of.

I worried about what to say, what to wear and whether I could bike there. (Or is that just “not done?”) Mostly, I worried I shouldn’t be taking it so seriously. I’d covered Congressional hearings before, and they often felt like a theater of the absurd. The members of Congress were barely paying attention, if they showed up at all, and the back-and-forth was for the cameras, not for the country.

It was 90 degrees out, so I left my bike at home. I wove my way through the fencing and police checkpoints fortifying the Capitol since the January 6 riot, thinking how much it felt like Bogotá or Jerusalem or other high-conflict places I’ve worried our country would turn into.

This particular committee does not have its own hearing room, so the hearing was held (irony alert) in the Armed Services Committee space. Being countercultural, this committee had arranged the furniture in a round-table format, unlike every other hearing I’ve been to — where the members sit up on high, with witnesses down below. (The staffers were very proud of this seating arrangement, which was kind of adorable.) The committee also sat Democrat-Republican, fully integrated (also unheard of). And a whopping 11 out of 12 members showed up.

“Today, a lot of what happens in Congress doesn’t feel very constructive. It feels frustrating at best and maddening at worst,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), the chair of the committee. “And that feeling, by the way, is bipartisan. I haven’t met anyone who actually enjoys working in a dysfunctional environment.”

For two hours, we engaged in what felt more like a brainstorming session than a performance. It was strange. They lamented that there are no spaces where they can gather across the political aisle without cameras present. They never eat meals together. Ever. The overwhelming sense I got was that they were all miserable. It was not that different from talking to guerrilla fighters or gang members who are utterly exhausted by their conflict — and desperate to get out, if only they could find a path. “Right now, the loudest voice is the one that is heard and it is rewarded, and the loudest voice is never going to be the one that solves the problem,” said vice chair Rep. William Timmons (R-SC).

I told them I could relate. Journalists, like politicians, are trapped in high conflict right now, and it is very hard to resist. Before you know it, you are harming the thing you went into the conflict to protect — whether it’s your family or your ideals or democracy itself.

The problem, I told them, is not conflict. It’s high conflict. The kind driven by humiliation and conflict entrepreneurs, who exploit conflict for their own ends. We don’t need “unity” or “bipartisan harmony” as much as we need what might be called “good conflict.”

Good conflict is necessary and urgent, like “good trouble,” as the late Congressman John Lewis used to say. You cultivate it with relationships and curiosity, built on shared rules of engagement.

I testified alongside three very wise people who understand this problem from all different angles: organizational psychologist Adam Grant, political scientist Kris Miler and family therapist Bill Doherty, who co-founded the dialogue organization Braver Angels. You can find the full hearing here (and the transcript here).

If you’d like to encourage this kind of countercultural behavior among politicians, contact your member of Congress and urge them to pay attention to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Modernization. (And if your own member of Congress is on this Committee, maybe send them some love. I get the sense they could use it.)

An Invitation

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