The political center moves things forward in OKC

As Americans, we are regularly told that our political discourse is polarized, that we are completely divided. In Oklahoma City we choose a different path.

Through demographics and political registration, OKC is a microcosm of the nation. Non-white residents make up almost half of our city. Our county voted Republican for President in 2020 by exactly one point. These even divisions could be interpreted as leading indicators of political division. Instead, Oklahoma City keeps navigating potentially divisive issues and getting things done with a consensus that transcends demographic and partisan lines.

We’re certainly not the only American city getting things done, even in this perceived age of polarization. Cities like ours are doing things as all of America once did—by fostering a political culture that embraces pluralism, pragmatism, and compromise. This requires leaders who lead by example, but it can also be supported by electoral systems that encourage this behavior.

In common parlance, Oklahoma City is politically purple, as is the nation. In OKC we can clearly see the math challenge. If a “side” tried to achieve only the desired results, it would fail. There just isn’t enough of a group to dominate. The stupidity at the national level is that they can’t see that. Fifty-one percent doesn’t achieve much, if anything, and yet this battle for the 51 and the dominance of the 49 goes on, choice after choice. In the end, the only real winner is the gridlock.

But we want to get things done in OKC, so we looked beyond 51% solutions. Instead, we move by consensus.

Since 1980, Oklahoma City has risen from the 37th to the 20th largest city. This success was fueled by a local sales tax initiative investing in quality of life known locally as MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects). In 2019 we had the opportunity to continue with the fourth iteration called MAPS 4. It eventually grew into a $1.1 billion initiative, funding 16 projects that address a wide range of challenges and opportunities. MAPS 4 ranges from mental health services and a civil rights center to economic development and stadiums. The mix of projects reflects many different worldviews, and different projects have been comfortable with different constituencies, including people from both major political parties. I often joked that only the mayor liked all 16 projects, but I reminded people that that was okay. In fact, this spirit of compromise was exactly how things were supposed to work.

MAPS 4 passed with 72% of the vote, and it is a mathematical certainty that many Republicans and Democrats voted the same way that day.

Similarly, at my own election-observation parties in 2018 and 2022, I could see crowds I knew to be an almost even mix of Democrats and Republicans, including many independents. That’s how it should be, but not many election nightwatch parties look like this anywhere in America today.

MAPS 4 reflects an approach we take to every issue in Oklahoma City. We respect pluralism – the reality that we will never all think alike and will never permanently defeat the “other side”. Pluralism is the reality that we must coexist. In Oklahoma City, we also accept pragmatism and compromise. We don’t just listen to each other, we also incorporate ideas from all perspectives into the result, even if one faction is not yet convinced. We realize that some things are important to other people. We accept that others can “win” as long as we do too.

Don’t get me wrong, this approach requires daily maintenance. It takes self-control on social media, and it takes getting out of our bubbles to listen and learn. It takes leadership. It requires leaders to talk about how we get things done as much as we talk about the results. But we’ve had success with that approach in OKC, and I see other cities doing the same. Mayors and cities must act. We cannot afford to waste time on the nonsense that is happening at the state and federal level.

It’s worth noting that in American cities we often have voting systems that encourage this behavior as well. In Oklahoma City, as in many cities, we elect mayors through a bipartisan top two system. This is very different from the closed, partisan primaries that elect state and federal leaders in most states.

This is significant. How you choose people determines everything else. If you want to see effective governance like the one we have in Oklahoma City, you need electoral reform in states that have closed, partisan primaries.

Better systems can take many forms (top 2, top 4, ranked voting, etc.), but there are two principles to follow: every candidate should face all voters, and every voter should receive a ballot with all candidates. Systems with these qualities enable coalition building and consensus. In contrast, closed party primaries highlight the extremes and reward pandering to a small subset of the electorate. We need electoral systems that do not isolate us. We need systems that allow the much larger constituency in the center to work together regardless of party registration.

Are some people polarized in this country? Secure. But there’s 60-70% of us in the middle that maybe come from different parties but we want to work together and get things done. I see that every day in Oklahoma City. Despite conventional wisdom, America is not polarized, but for too long we have allowed those who are to dominate discourse.

Those of us who want to work together are the real majority in this country and we must prevail.

David Holt is the 36th Mayor of Oklahoma City. He wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.

Part of our opinion series The American Middle, this essay describes how Oklahoma City, without a dominant majority, gets things done through pragmatism and compromise.

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