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September 10, 2020

An Aisle or a Wall?

In American politics, the term “aisle” refers to the ideological and partisan differences that separate the two major parties. Interestingly, the term is rooted in the actual physical division of Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate, where the desks are arranged in a semicircle with a wide central aisle. As viewed from the presiding officer’s chair, tradition dictates that Democrats sit to the right and Republicans to the left.

Consider the wisdom of this arrangement. In a heterogeneous society with diverse and competing interests, sound public policy cannot be crafted if the aisle functions as a wall. Indeed, the American republic has been built on bargains, beginning with the many compromises and arrangements that produced our Constitution. Even today, we intuitively understand the need for statesmen and stateswomen willing to muster the courage, and even risk losing the next election, to move toward, and not away from, colleagues of other ideological persuasions.

This brief etymology (and history) lesson is worth thinking about today in the context of our shared purpose as agriculture industry advocates who seek good public policy outcomes in an era of sharp and rancorous political and social division. I am asked all the time: “Can anything good get done?” The short answer is yes, but a more complete answer requires qualification that amounts to this: Unless and until it becomes safer to work across the aisle than it is today, the sound and balanced policies we wish to see enacted by legislative bodies and the executive branch will face enormous hurdles.

This is not a call to consign our agriculture and economic principles to a distant second place. We should, however, reflect on the observed reality that a policy enacted without some bipartisan engagement and compromise rarely works well over time, assuming such a policy makes it over the finish line at all.

To be effective as advocates in the public policy arena, we must be certain what we must win, what we must defeat, and what we can give and take in the middle in service of those larger objectives. This necessarily mandates that our personal ideological preferences take a back seat; the industry’s needs and objectives must guide us.

That’s a muscle most of us have to develop; it doesn’t always come naturally.

My own career experience leaves little ambiguity about where I sit on the ideological spectrum. Nonetheless, as a professional advocate for our industry, I have repeatedly seen, and been intimately involved with, the development of sound public policy with people across the spectrum. Some of them have been legislators who did not receive support from the Western Growers Political Action Committee (WGPAC) when they first ran, and in some cases our PAC supported their opponents. Yet for reasons that vary, in so many cases these lawmakers sought to build a bridge where none existed and, through reciprocal outreach by us, succeeded.

This is good for the cause we serve: Our industry.

Many Western Growers members contribute to our PAC (which is actually four PACs: Federal, California, Arizona and “Issues,” which is used for ballot measure campaigns), but the lion’s share of WGPAC funding comes from the generosity of Western Growers directors. Nearly all WG board members “dig deep,” as the saying goes, every two years to ensure that WGPAC has the resources needed to provide critical support to legislators and candidates for office who have demonstrated an ability or willingness to lean in for our industry. As the highest financial supporters of the PAC, these men and women also direct its activities with the advice of our professional staff.

Their task is even more difficult in this environment. We see political and societal division so sharp, angry and uncompromising that there is no one willing to walk into that aisle and reach across. At least that is how it appears if all we know is what we glean from increasingly awful media companies that seek to inflame and frighten rather than inform.

The truth is there are good people seeking to work in partnerships across the aisle to achieve public policy that truly protects and advances the needs of agriculture, even in California’s capitol. They are too few, and they are not “with us” on every issue. But they are there and to do more on our issues, they need more like them.

That is exactly why we must remain committed to helping elect them. They are the problem solvers, the principled pragmatists, the antidotes to the demagogues. They are the ones who want to effect sound public policy. They are the ones who are willing, on some big issues, to say “no” to influential power brokers in their own party. They are the ones willing to press forward into the aisle.

They cannot succeed alone.

To all Western Growers members who engage in the political process, in any manner but especially by contributing financially, whether directly to candidates or to WGPAC or any of the other PACs striving to advance our interests, please accept my gratitude. This trying time in our nation’s story has undoubtedly convinced too many good people that it is folly to be engaged in the political process when in fact our industry (and indeed our nation) need them to be more involved than ever.

The dust from this election season will clear in the months ahead. As it does, our advocates will be in the capitols and in lawmakers’ districts to help make the aisle that separates partisans a safer space.