Moving Beyond the New Tribalism
Remarks to the City Club of Eugene
John A. Kitzhaber
January 25, 2019
Last summer I was coming back to Portland on the direct Alaska flight from Reagan International in Washington, D.C. I was settled down in my seat looking out the window, watching the front range of the Rocky Mountains rising up below us, when the PA system clicked on and I heard a flight attendant asked “Is there a doctor on the plane?”
I felt that reflex adrenaline rush that used to be triggered by the sound of sirens when I was still practicing. Apparently, you can take the boy out of the ER but you can’t take the ER out of the boy. I vaulted over the two people sitting next to me and headed towards the back of the plane where I found it an older woman unconscious in her seat. She had a pulse and by the time I had her down in the aisle the cabin crew had broken out the medical kit. I got her oxygen and slapped on the BP cuff. She came around and I got here into an empty row at the back of the plane where I monitored her for the rest of the flight into Portland.
I share this story because the whole plane was rooting for this woman—a stranger to most of them. No one asked about her politics or her party registration. And no one cared. She was a fellow human being in distress. And over the course of the next two hours at least twenty people stopped by to see how she was. It was a spontaneous outpouring of empathy and support.
During the great recession in 2011, shortly after I was reelected, I traveled to Prineville in Central Oregon where unemployment topped 18 percent. And I will never forget seeing three extension cords hooked together—probably 200 feet overall—running from one house to power a space heater in a neighboring house, where the utilities had been shut off because the family couldn’t afford to pay the bill. People reaching out to one another. We see it during floods and forest fires and windstorms, in hospitals, in schools and on farms and ranches. An expression of the innate sense of caring and compassion that resides within each of us.
Why then have we let our civic and political discourse becomes so toxic? Why have we allowed ourselves to be categorized as Democrats and Republicans, Trump Supporters and Trump Haters, liberals and conservatives, red states and blue states? Why have we allowed the bitter, divisive tone in our nation’s capital to cast a shadow over our common humanity here in Oregon, like throwing a blanket over a lamp?
What is at stake here is our capacity to build the community and common purpose needed to meet shared challenges and solve shared problems. For example, the seeming inability to address our state’s long-term structural budget deficit is largely due to partisanship and the decline of civility in our political debate.
A structural budget deficit is one that results from a fundamental imbalance between revenue and expenditures, as opposed to one based on one-time or short-term factors—and Oregon’s structural deficit makes it difficult for our state to build up reserves. Why is that important? Anyone who runs a business recognizes that in order to grow you need the ability to establish reserves that allow you to invest in your workforce, your plant and equipment; and, hopefully, to have enough margin to stay afloat during the inevitable fluctuations in the economic cycle. Oregon is perhaps the only state in the nation that lacks the capacity to do so—and that is a problem that puts our future in jeopardy.
This problem has been narrowly framed as the consequence of low business taxes and an expensive Public Employee Retirement System, which in turn has polarized the debate, making it more difficult to arrive at a solution. Because—although these factors contribute to the problem—the roots of our structural budget deficit date back forty years to 1978 when California voters approved Proposition 13—its property tax limitation measure—and an identical measure that was on the Oregon ballot that same year was narrowly defeated. Proposition 13 cut property tax revenues in California by 60 percent and decimated funding for education.
In an effort to prevent a similar measure from passing in Oregon, the 1979 legislature referred to the voters a “property tax relief” package which gave property owners a state-funded thirty percent reduction in their property taxes; and required the state to rebate any future” excessive” general fund surplus to the taxpayers. This latter element is what was to become known as the “kicker.” Here is how it works.
As you know, Oregon builds its two-year biennial budget on a revenue forecast which estimates how much money our current tax system will generate over the next two years. If the actual revenues exceed the forecast by more than two percent, the entire amount of revenue that exceeds the forecast is rebated to the taxpayers. Thus, Oregon became the first, and only, state in the nation that cannot build up reserves during good times to help maintain important programs and services during lean times.
Since adopting the kicker, voters have approved two ballot measures, both of which mandated a significant increase in state spending without additional revenue to pay for it. The first of these was Ballot Measure 5 passed in 1990, which—in spite of the best efforts by the 1979 legislature— limited property taxes dedicated to schools and had the same detrimental impact on education funding in Oregon that Proposition 13 had in California. The state used the general fund to try to make up the lost revenue but fell several billion dollars short. In the process, other elements of the budget were squeezed, especially higher education.
Four years later, in 1994, voters passed another unfunded mandate in the form of Ballot Measure 11—a mandatory minimum sentencing measure, which necessitated the construction and operation of a number of additional prisons, adding another multi-billion-dollar unfunded cost to the general fund.
Thus, over the past thirty years, the state general fund has had to absorb billions of dollars of unfunded spending mandated by the voters; while the kicker has been triggered ten times, rebating almost $3.5 billion—and leaving Oregon with its structural budget deficit.
Over the past few decades, our structural budget deficit has been exacerbated by three additional factors, two of which I already mentioned: that Oregon has relatively low corporate taxes compared to the rest of the nation; and relatively high public employee total compensation costs. The third factor is the cost of Medicaid, which has become a major contributing factor to the budget deficit because of Oregon’s heavy reliance on federal funds to support this program, which now provides affordable health care to twenty five percent of Oregonians and fifty percent of our children.
Our structural budget deficit and the two-percent kicker represent the elephant in the room. They prevent us from ever getting ahead; they prevent us from making the kinds of long term, sustainable investments in early childhood, primary, secondary and post-secondary education—and in economic development and economic opportunity—that will ensure all Oregonians have an equal opportunity to succeed, and that we will have the workforce needed to fuel the dynamic and rapidly changing economy of the 21st Century.
We all know what the problem is. We have admired it for a long time. And we have known the elements of the solution for a long time as well: (1) reducing the rate of growth of the total cost of public employee compensation, especially in PERS and health care; (2) significantly increasing revenue to the general fund, which will require some form of consumption tax (value added tax, business activity tax, retail sales tax); (3) redirecting the kicker to fund dedicated reserves; and (4) maintaining the success of our Coordinated Care Organizations and extending this new delivery model into the commercial health insurance market, including PEBB and OEBB.
That is a tall order to be sure and no one sector can solve this problem alone. It will require a handshake between business, labor and the state’s political leadership; between Republicans and Democrats; between urban and rural Oregon; between the young and the old; between the well to do and those struggling to make ends meet. But, most of all, it will require a fundamental change in the tone of our civic and political discourse. And that is something over which we have control; it is a choice.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe that our national politics, and the tone of the national debate, provides the backdrop, the environment, the context in which we seek to solve problems and make progress at the state and local level. Like many of you, I listened to much of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last September on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. I have own strong personal feelings about the hearings and their outcome, as I am sure you do. But whether you supported or opposed this particular nomination—the spectacle was designed by both sides to maximize partisan political advantage.
Indeed, the commentary by every media outlet in the nation, that eagerly rushed in to fill every break in the testimony—dissecting, hashing, rehashing and analyzing every detail ad nauseum—was focused as much on the impact the nomination would have on the midterm elections as on the purpose of the hearing in the first place.
This is the snapshot of an increasingly dysfunctional democracy. So is the current government shutdown; so is Speaker Pelosi’ decision to delay the president’s State of the Union address, and so is the president’s decision to retaliate by refusing the use of military planes for a congressional delegation to visit Afghanistan and Brussels.
This should give us all pause; because even here in Oregon—as far removed as we are from the banks of the Potomac—we are, in no way, immune from the growing toxicity, pettiness, malaise and divisiveness that is emanating out from our nation’s capital.
As most of you know, I have always been a registered Democrat, but I have no reservations whatsoever in saying that our two-party system—including my own party—has become a central part of the problem. When the purpose of political debate in our nation becomes primarily, if not solely, about the acquisition and retention of partisan political power, rather than the exercise of that power to lift up our whole society; by tackling those really difficult challenges that will define our future …when we reach that point, it is time to step back and ask ourselves whether we as individuals are—intentionally or unintentionally— helping to facilitate and perpetuate this slide to tribalism and mediocrity and, if so, what we are willing to do to combat it?
On October 30, 2000 the late journalist Tim Russert, during his televised coverage of the presidential election, coined the term “Red States and Blue States” to reflect the partisan voter preferences. Unfortunately, this designation found legs and has served ever since as yet another way to artificially define and divide us. If you look at the electoral map of the United States of America what strikes you is how red it is—with only a few islands of blue along the West Coast, in the Northeast and a few patches in between. And one of those islands is Oregon, always shown as a bright patch of blue floating in a sea of red.
But if you look at a county electoral map of Oregon, what strikes you is how red it is—even redder than that national map—with only a few islands of blue in the Northwest portion of the state.
But here is the question: What do those colors actually tell us about one another? What do they tell us about our fears, about our hopes, our dreams, our compassion or about the strength of our communities? The answer is “not much.” Does this map suggest—and, more importantly, do any of you really believe—that people living here in Eugene, in a “Blue” part of Oregon, care more or less about their children or their jobs or their environment or the safety of their communities or the stability of their families than people who live only a few miles away in a “Red” part of Oregon? The fact is that these colors are artificial distinctions that serve only partisan politics and not the shared aspirations of Oregonians—shared aspirations which offer the only foundation on which we can build a hopeful and inclusive future.
I hear an ancient noise rising in Oregon.
To my ears, it is a raucous, ragged sound. I hear it when I watch parts of the local TV news, when I read about some of the new initiative petitions in the newspaper, when I open a piece of junk mail urging me to contribute to an “anti-something” campaign.
It sounds like a hundred drummers with different drums, each beating their own rhythm. It sounds like the cacophony of a hundred tribes, each speaking their own tongue. It sounds like a hundred calls to battle.
It is the growth of a politics based upon narrow concerns, rooted in the exploitation of divisions of class, cash, gender, region, religion, ethnicity, morality and ideology; a give-no-quarter and take-no-prisoners activism that demands satisfaction and accepts no compromise.
Those are not my words. But I wish they were, because they are so eloquent and so powerful. They were spoken right here at the Eugene City Club in 1994 by a close friend, a political ally and, to me, an Oregon hero: the late David Frohnmayer: legislator, Oregon Attorney General; Republican candidate for governor; and the 15th President of the University of Oregon. David called this the “New Tribalism,” which he said was “fractionizing politics; tearing apart our common mission and the potential for a hopeful future.”
He made those remarks just four years after the World Wide Web was established and at almost exactly the same time that the Internet was becoming fully commercialized. He delivered this speech ten years before the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other forms of anonymous social media, which has allowed people to attack and demonize one another without directly confronting them, without knowing them, without even giving them the benefit of the doubt— truly the ultimate manifestation of the New Tribalism.
Does any of this ring true? Are we, as Dave suggested, tearing apart our common mission and the potential for a hopeful future? Is that where Oregon is today? My answer is: “Not yet.” But without some intentional intervention—without leadership from each and every community in our state—that is surely where we are headed. Why? Because a hopeful future, an inclusive future, a bright future is the product of a common mission, of a sense of common purpose, of something larger than ourselves; of something that we are all willing to invest in and sacrifice for. Without a common mission there can be no community and it is the lack of community that makes us susceptible to the kind of tribalism that David Frohnmayer so eloquently described a quarter century ago.
The bad news is that we are perilously close to losing our sense of community and common mission. Not because that is who we are, but because we are succumbing to the relentless bombardment of a 24-hour conflict-driven media model that reflects and amplifies the toxic, hyper-partisan environment of our national politics.
The good news is that we have a choice. We do not have to succumb to this; we do not have to accept it. And we shouldn’t because community is the one thing we cannot afford to lose; the one thing that is worth fighting to retain—because a sense of common purpose, a sense of community is the only platform from which we can confidently build an inclusive and hopeful future.
A year ago, I was invited to speak to the Judge Gus Solomon Inns of Court. I had no idea what an “Inns of Court” was but, after some research, I discovered that it is an association of lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals from all levels and backgrounds dating back to 14th century England. I found the whole notion inspiring—the creation of a space where Oregonians who share a profession and a state could gather to promote civility, and excellence among attorneys of different backgrounds, views and levels of experience—many of whom find themselves on different sides of a given issue or question during the day.
I was reminded of what (in retrospect) was a kind of informal “Inns of Legislature” that existed when I was first elected to the House of Representatives forty years ago in 1978. Almost every evening during the 1979 session, members of both parties, lobbyists and the press would gather at a downtown Salem watering hole called The Hindquarter to discuss the day’s issues, to enjoy each other’s company, to get to know one another as people beyond the politics and partisan labels. Sitting at the head of the table—presiding with his carafe of rose close at hand—was usually Henny Willis the prolific political reporter for the Eugene Register Guard. You may recognize the names of some of those who, at one time or another, sat at that table: Dave Frohnmayer, Grattan Kerans, Bill Rutherford, Ted Kulongoski, Norma Paulus, Tony Meeker, LB Day, Mike Thorne, Vera Katz.
This was an era when civility prevailed in Oregon politics. We fought with each other during the election cycle—took none of it personally (and it was far less personal and mean-spirited than it is today)—and then put all that behind us when the legislature convened. In the spring, we played pick-up softball games: republicans, democrats, lobbyists, reporters and, sometimes, members of editorial boards. It was an era when we were Oregonians first and partisans second. We fought about a lot of things but not about the big things … we didn’t fight over transportation or education or public safety. It was a time when your handshake was your bond; when if you were going to vote against someone’s bill you walked across the floor and let them know; a time when you debated passionately during the day and raised a glass to one another at night.
Sadly, we have somehow, lost that adhesiveness … that civility and sense of common purpose. Over the years we have somehow let it slip through our fingers and we are poorer for the loss. And that loss is reflected across our political landscape today. I share this with you simply as a reminder of what we are capable of. We cannot turn back the clock. I know, but we can make a different set of choices for the future: partisanship is a choice and so is civility.
Our challenge here in Eugene, in Springfield, C0ttage Grove, Junction City and in every community across this state of ours, is to remember that we are truly all in this together, that Oregon won’t be a good place for any of us to live unless it’s a good place for all of us to live; and that we cannot build a hopeful future without joining hands in common cause.
Let me close today with one last thought. When I started practicing emergency medicine in Roseburg in 1974, I was 27 years old and just four months out of my internship and, quite honestly, a bit intimidated by my new responsibility. Although that was 45 years ago I still remember three things quite clearly. First, I remember how vulnerable the people were who came to me for medical care. They were sick or injured, frightened and asking for help. And although they didn’t know me that put their trust and, in some cases, their very lives in my hands. As did a woman last summer in an Alaska Airlines jet filled with empathy and support 35,000 feet over the Rockies.
The second thing I remember was that often, especially in the ERs of the early 1970s, the “Golden Hour”—that period when you had the greatest opportunity to alter the outcome of someone with a serious traumatic injury or medical problem—the Golden Hour had come and gone before someone made it to the hospital. And on those occasions when, in spite of all the technology I had at my disposal, I was unable to save a life, I would walk across the hall.
The hall ran in from the ambulance ramp and opened on the right through big double doors into the Emergency Room with its sparkling white trauma bays and green-curtained examination rooms. On the other side of the hall was a smaller room with a few chairs and a sofa where the friends and family of those who had been brought in by ambulance waited for news of their loved ones.
Walking across the hall was an almost ritual acknowledgement of failure; and it always felt like a long, lonely hopeless journey to traverse the thirty feet of tiled floor carrying nothing but bad news and compassion to tell someone that their husband or father or daughter—who had come to me for help— was gone. It was that poignant intersection of compassion and human mortality that all of us must eventually cross.
The third thing I remember is that during the many years I practiced in the ER, there was not a single instance when I checked someone’s party registration before treating them; or noticed whether Democrats bleed differently than Republicans; or wondered whether cardiovascular disease or cancer respected partisanship and political ideology. In this divided nation of ours, in this divided state, the one thing that we indisputably hold in common—and that should draw us together—is our shared mortality. We all share the same brief moment of life and, as Robert Kennedy once said, seeking “nothing but the chance to live out [our] lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment [we] can.”
We have a choice—a choice about what we want our state to be, about who we want to be, as Oregonians and as fellow human beings. It is a choice to put understanding before reaction; to put collaboration before conflict; to put reconciliation before recrimination. Reconciliation begins with each of us; it begins in the heart of each individual, fueled by a desire and choice to make our community better; to repair the fabric of our society and of this place we call Oregon.
  Speech to the City Club of Cleveland; April 5, 1968