George Ball: Growing hybrid politics; Congress’ monoculture must evolve

The 117th Congress convenes Sunday. Let’s raise a toast to this newly hatched deliberative body and bid a fond farewell to the 116th: the least productive session in Congress’ 230 years.

From January 2019 to today, our elected representatives managed to have just 1% of proposed legislation approved by the House, ratified by the Senate, signed by the President, and enacted into law. Here we have a teachable moment of Congressional inaction in action.

The reason for this legislative gridlock is polarization: The two parties can’t agree on anything. The concerns of constituents back home, and their quaint kitchen-table issues, are stampeded under the juggernaut of party loyalty. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, My party, right or wrong, is like saying, My mother, drunk or sober.

In an earlier golden age – not so long ago – our elected representatives resided in the Capitol with their families. There were bipartisan social gatherings facilitated by the social lubricant of the barbecue. Congressional families attended the same churches, school events, and kids’ sports matches. Goodbye to all that.

Today’s elected officials are in Washington just three grueling days a week, spending four days visiting their constituencies; they spend slivers of time with their families.

Congress has been called the least family-friendly workplace in America; this from the daughter of two representatives.

As our Congress folk don’t see eye to eye, and barely see each other, I suggest they study nature. There they will learn about “heterosis”, the heart and soul of plant breeding.

Better known by horticulturalists as hybrid vigor, heterosis is the mating of two purebred parents that results in offspring, called F1 hybrids, combining the more desirable traits of each. The resulting synergistic effect creates bigger, healthier, faster-growing, more fertile, and higher-yielding plants than either parent.

For this magic to work, the parents can’t be too alike: That results in inbreeding depression, a sorry state of affairs. The key to making 1+1=3 is the differentiation of individual organisms. The more different the parents, the more vigorous and innovative the offspring. Differences fuel not only survival, but evolution itself.

You will ask, how does nature’s mating game relate to the business of Congress, society, culture?

Good question. Cultural hybrids abound and flourish. Our country, for instance, is a hybrid of a democracy and a republic. Many of our traditions derive from a Greco-Roman x Judeo-Christian hybrid – a rare “tetraploid” or four-way cross of two hybrids.

Pablo Picasso transformed modern art by incorporating aspects of African art. Andy Warhol pollinated painting with ephemeral consumer goods. Rhythm and blues is a conjunction of gospel and blues; rock ’n’ roll a mingling of R&B and country swing. Elvis is a hip-wriggling hybrid.

The birthing of new genres is a fine example of hybrid speciation: the creation of a unique and vigorous new species. Originally sprung from ragtime, blues and Louisiana Creole funeral marches (a three-way or “triploid” cross), jazz introduced improvisation: a source of ongoing variation and differentiation – a furnace of speciation.

Our obdurately partisan plant families in Washington are what horticulturalists call monocultures – unchanging, unadaptable, immune to influence, and doomed to extinction – to be inevitably outdone by fitter, more nimble hybrid political species.

The root of the word “Congress” is from the Latin gressare, meaning “to walk” and, combined with con, it means “to walk together.”

I recommend our leaders in Washington “congress” out of their partisan morass, start to actively listen and both combine and recombine their best ideas. As co-creators and collaborators, they will engender hybrid vigor – new realms of invention, variety and beauty in the Great American Political Garden.

George Ball is chairman of W. Atlee Burpee Company and past president of The American Horticultural Society.