YORK, Pa. - Politics, the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck famously said, “is the art of the possible, the attainable - the art of the next best.”
Surveying our political landscape these days, it’s all too easy to conclude that our elected leaders can’t even get to the next, next best. Or whatever comes after that. I’m thinking about whether it’s President Donald Trump’s abrupt pivot on gun control this week, or Congress’ ongoing inability to pass on-time federal budgets or reach agreements on such issues as infrastructure spending where, we keep failing on areas where there appears to be broad, bipartisan consensus.
Meanwhile, news consumers are battered by the constant barrage of tweets, half-baked policy ideas and partisan sniping emanating from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Is it any wonder that we’re all cynical?
But what if - just if - there was some parallel dimension where government functions according to that Platonic ideal that, well, some of us, anyway, hold in our heads?
On Sept. 18, on the campus of York College in south-central Pennsylvania, two former Keystone State governors – Democrat Ed Rendell and Republican Mark S. Schweiker -- will try to reach consensus on one of the most intractable public policy issues of our time: immigration reform and state government’s role in it.
And they’re going to do it in an hour. Yes, an hour.
That’s the goal of the “Democracy Challenge,” a new effort sponsored by the York County Economic Alliance, a regional economic development advocacy group.
“There was a time in our country, where our leaders would conduct substantial debates on the issues,” said Kevin Schreiber, the president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance. “There was a time where the ability to compromise was seen as a prerequisite for service and not as a weakness.”
It’s kind of perfect in a way that this exercise in idealism is taking place on a college campus. And there’s a lovely irony that Schreiber, a former Democratic member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, is the guy who’s overseeing it. He’s been a roadside witness to plenty of legislative car crashes.
“Politics has become a zero-sum game, one that now picks winners and losers,” he said. “Cynicism in government is contagious.”
Indeed, public trust in government is at “historic lows,” according to the Pew Research Center.
In the Trump era, just 17 percent of Americans told Pew pollsters they trust government “always” or “most of the time.” That’s down from a high of 77 percent in October 1964 - after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but before the full conflagration of the Vietnam War.
Schweiker served a little less than two years, from 2001 to 2002, when Republican Gov. Tom Ridge resigned to become President George W. Bush’s first homeland security czar in those dark hours after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
He said in a statement that he hopes the event “will inspire [elected] leaders ... to consider that even with competing points of view that we can come together to create a solution that generates accountability.”
Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor who served two terms from 2002 to 2010, said an agreement on immigration could be achievable because it “isn’t an issue that breaks Republican or Democrat.”
Clearly, that message hasn’t penetrated in Washington. But no matter.
Schreiber said he hopes the Sept. 18 event, which is being co-sponsored by both York College and cable titan Comcast, will become an annual occurrence, drawing in college students and others to work together to find common ground.
And maybe they’ll even give our battered a public dialogue a lift while they’re at it.
Hoping for a return to sanity in government might be a little far-fetched. Especially these days.
But compared to, say, buying Greenland, it’s a walk-off.
An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.