December 21, 2020

Questions Answered

Many thanks to the hundreds of readers who responded to our survey with thoughtful questions! We’re delightfully overwhelmed. For the next three days, we’ll be answering a select few that we think represent broader themes; today’s theme is polarization / bipartisanship. You can also read additional answers from a previous round of questions here. (It’s a very long edition, but searchable by keyword!)

We should note that while we received many questions about COVID, we’re not medical professionals, and so we’ll refer concerns about masks or vaccines to medical authorities. You can read about masks from the CDC and Mayo Clinic, and about vaccines from the CDC and USA Today. Here’s a tracker of current vaccine doses by state.

Without further ado, let's get to it!

“To what extent does each party bear responsibility for the existence of the political divide, and in what ways are they addressing it?” - Laurel, Oregon

In the past few years both parties have become much more ideologically homogeneous; in the 1990s substantial numbers of party leaders and voters on each side held positions inconsistent with party orthodoxy. It was not uncommon to see socially liberal Republicans or socially conservative Democrats. Today, more than half of both parties believe that the other party’s policies are not simply wrong but a threat to the country. Thus many disagreements (e.g., over race or immigration) that previously occurred within parties now occur between them.

There are a multitude of reasons for the increasing polarization:

So while political leaders are not wholly to blame, they do bear responsibility, along with the media. The two-party system gives parties a large role in funding and nominating candidates; going against the party line is often career suicide. Our entire political ecosystem is based on partisanship: politicians pander to donors and activists, while the media  - with help from social media - splinters into separate echo chambers for each side. A 2019 Pew survey of 30 major media outlets found that not a single one was trusted by more than 50 percent of US adults.

At the same time, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out that much of the responsibility ultimately lies with voters who demand ideological conformity. It’s easier to compromise with moderate politicians, but moderates can only be elected if voters support them over less ideological nominees. In our hyperpolarized environment, compromise is too often seen as selling out in an era when taking photogenic stands is considered the peak of heroism. If voters want to see compromise, then they need to reward politicians who do so.

While many voters claim to support compromise in the abstract, in practice this breaks down. Among Republicans, nearly 79 percent think it is important for Democrats to compromise but only 41 percent think fellow Republicans should do so. Similarly, 78 percent of Democrats think it is important for Republicans to compromise but only 48 percent think fellow Democrats should do so. To many voters, compromise seems to involve the other side backing down. And as long as politicians - and parties - keep winning while pushing ideological purity over all else, they are unlikely to change their behavior.

“What changes in America will be required to return our government institutions to a properly functioning democracy instead of a partisan shouting match?” - Bob, Indiana

“What are the barriers to bipartisan efforts or compromise within Congress? How can citizens hold representatives accountable for refusing to compromise?” - Emily, Washington DC


For better or worse, most of US history has been quite partisan; the system was in many ways designed with checks and balances which serve to encourage gridlock. As one commenter notes, “The Madisonian system of government purposefully inserts into the legislative process a series of obstacles that are in many ways unique to the United States. The compelling reason the founders designed such a daunting legislative path is that they feared the tyranny of the majority, which is why they rejected a system that would quickly or efficiently translate majority preferences into law.”

Back in the 1850s there were numerous examples of actual violence in Congress, most notably when Rep. Preston Brooks beat Sen. Charles Sumner unconscious with a cane on the Senate floor (Brooks resigned following the incident but was immediately reelected). One of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, a political rival.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t work to improve the functioning of our government. We should promote bipartisanship within government. Congressional orientations should be bipartisan, so new members of Congress can meet those from the other party; weekly bipartisan meetings should also be reinstated in Congress. Founded in 2017, the Problem Solvers Caucus is a group of House members from both parties that pledges to work together to advance bipartisan policy solutions on issues such as infrastructure, criminal justice, and healthcare; voters can ask their representatives to join the caucus. And as stated earlier, it would likely help to elect more moderates.

Some on the left have proposed structural changes such as getting rid of the electoral college, eliminating the filibuster or adding additional Supreme Court justices. You can read our prior coverage of the electoral college, the filibuster and court-packing for perspectives from both sides on these issues.

Another option might be to reduce centralization. We have 535 members of Congress and one President attempting to make policy for 330 million individuals across nearly 4 million square miles. Rather than try to force a one-size-fits-all approach on such a diverse country, we could reign in the federal government and return authority to state and local government, where participation is more direct, voices are better heard, and results are more tangible. Nearly three quarters of the public - including huge majorities of both parties - are confident in their local government; by contrast, only 13 percent trust the federal Congress “a great deal” or “quite a lot.”

While support for federalism has traditionally been supported by conservatives, some on the left have recently argued that it can be valuable for advancing progressive policies, particularly during Republican administrations. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described states as “laboratories of democracy” and noted that “a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” The Affordable Care Act, for example, was based on a state plan from Massachusetts. And states such as Texas are pioneering various electricity deregulation plans with some success.

Finally, one of our readers had an intriguing suggestion:

“Why don't we create a Cabinet level position that is filled by a member of the opposite party to help explain the other side's opinions and lessen the divide in our country? I know we have plenty of opposition at all levels of government, but no one primarily focused on bringing both sides together.” - Darrell, Florida

It’s not unprecedented for administrations to appoint members of the opposition party to Cabinet positions. Ray LaHood, a Republican representative from Illinois, served as Secretary of Transportation during the Obama administration, and Norman Mineta, President Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce and a Democratic representative from California, served as Secretary of Transportation during the GW Bush administration. That said, there’s some merit to the idea of a permanent “devil’s advocate” position to help avoid groupthink.

“I would expect that from a national viewpoint there must be some common ground between the left and the right. As we enter 2021, what are some areas of agreement?” - Mike, Florida

The parties are not as divided as many people think. For example, a majority of Republicans believe racism and sexism still exist in America and that the government should do more to stop bad people from obtaining guns; a majority of Democrats disagree that most police officers are bad people or that America should be a socialist country or that we should do away with the right to bear arms.

There is bipartisan support for additional stimulus checks and free speech on college campuses. 92 percent support body cameras for police officers; 85 percent believe big tech companies are too powerful; 79 percent, including 66 percent of Republicans, support maintaining health insurance protection for those with pre-existing medical conditions; and large majorities oppose cutting spending on education, Medicare, Social Security, infrastructure, or veterans benefits.

Even controversial issues are not as binary as they may appear:

  • 77 percent of adults agree that immigration is good for the country
  • On gun rights, nearly 90 percent of adults support additional mental health funding, while approximately three quarters support background checks for private sales, “red flag” laws, and requiring a license to purchase a gun
  • While the country is supposedly divided between pro-life and pro-choice camps, there is actually much agreement in the data: 60 percent of adults think abortion should generally be legal in the first trimester, while 28 percent say the same for the second trimester and 13 percent for the third

It’s worth noting that both parties believe in the preservation and protection of the United States. Both wish and enact policy to strengthen America economically and diplomatically. Vast majorities of both parties consider themselves “very” or “somewhat” patriotic. Both want to give their children, grandchildren and families a better country than what they inherited. Where the differences come in are the means by which these goals are achieved. Some argue for a stronger federal government to bring about change, while others advocate for the federal government to step back and delegate tasks to local communities. Those are obviously important differences, but if we can accept that the other side ultimately has the same goal - the betterment of the country - then that opens up room for compromise.

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