Overcoming Hyperpartisanship and Making Democracy Work

Can the U.S. overcome hyperpartisanship? Allan and Sheri Rivlin discuss why consensus matters in their new book "Divided We Fall."
Book Cover, Courtesy of The Brookings Institution

Solutions to Hyperpartisanship and Political Stalemate Are Not Out of Reach

By Allan and Sheri Rivlin – CEO and President of Zen Political Research, authors of “Divided We Fall: Why Consensus Matters

What Inspired you to write Divided We Fall

Allan and Sheri Rivlin: Alice Rivlin, our mother and mother-in-law, started writing the book in 2017 out of feelings of frustration that too little was getting done in Congress. She feared too many issues were going unaddressed due to partisan standoffs over legislation and that the public was losing confidence in the institutions of our government and democracy. After Alice received a diagnosis of cancer in 2018 and died in 2019, she passed the partially completed book to us.

The three years we spent completing Alice’s vision saw dramatic developments that, while bad for the nation, made the book far more relevant than when Alice started writing. Hyperpartisan warfare intensified in the Trump years, with distrust in the institutions of democracy culminating in, but not ending with, the January 6th attack on the Capitol. As a result, many people within and outside the government are looking for a different path forward. The book offers many ways for people to get involved in seeking solutions to our partisan divisions.

You argue bipartisanship is “something partisans do” and that partisanship is actually necessary. Can you explain?

Rivlins: The book offers evidence of increasing polarization among American voters and the leaders we elect. While it is true there are fewer moderates in the House and Senate, however, this does not mean bipartisanship is dead. Partisans, even strong partisans, can negotiate bipartisan deals while keeping true to their values and beliefs. 

Our two political parties represent segments of our society that have different approaches to governing, allowing for voters to have a voice in the decisions that are made. Elected leaders need to hold fast to the values and positions of the voters they represent, but staunch conservatives and bold progressives are not doing their job if nothing is getting passed. Their job is to work through the differences, craft legislation, and build coalitions with enough legislators to pass laws that address our national problems and create economic opportunities.

Asking the Right Questions

In the book, you discuss two versions of the American economy: one characterized by unparalleled strength and innovation, and the other by growing inequality and stagnation. You do the same for our history, describing one version that emphasizes freedom and liberty, and another that highlights imperialism, racism, and sexism. How can we better understand these competing histories and realities?

Rivlins: The economy is never as good as members of the president’s party claim and never as bad as the opposition party likes to argue. The truth is that presidents have far less control over the overall state of the economy than voters believe. 

More important, however, is that the aggregate statistics do a poor job of capturing the economic realities faced by millions of Americans. For many decades, the biggest problem with the American economy has been economic inequality — both the financial crisis and the pandemic made this worse. National statistics, in averaging the incomes of the rich and poor, fail to paint an accurate picture of many financial realities. While few well-educated workers in booming big cities on the coasts experience economic hardship, the same cannot be said for people who live in different neighborhoods in those same cities, as well as for people with less education or family wealth in midsize cities and small towns. In rural areas across the American heartland, where manufacturing and agriculture have been in long-term decline, career opportunities are limited. The recession of 2008 never ended in these places; economic hardship due to the ups and downs of the business cycle and the long-term economic trends are acutely felt.

Instead of debating whether or not we are in a recession, the questions we should be asking are: In a country with as much wealth as the United States, why is it so difficult to be poor? How do we reach common ground solutions to our long-term economic problems, so we can lower our national debt, make the needed investments in the future health and wealth of the people, and achieve broadly shared and sustainable prosperity?   

The heroic version of American history holds that this is a great country because great men wrote a Constitution and Bill of Rights, and other heroic men defended our freedoms in battle. The other version highlights more unpleasant historical truths: that many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves and much of American greatness and prosperity has come at the point of a gun. The first Americans were driven off their lands and killed, millions of Africans and their descendants were enslaved, and domestic and foreign wars were waged to secure materials for production, among other difficult truths. While most Americans accept at least some truth in both versions, debates between the two positions dominate the national discussion of American history. With many Americans concerned today about political divisions, the widespread propagation of lies and conspiracies, and the threats they pose to American democracy, the book offers many ways for people who place their commitment to democracy above their partisanship to take action and get involved.

Learning from History

In the book, you discuss how bipartisanship achieved a budget surplus. Some might argue this type of cooperation is rare, if not nonexistent, today. Can you discuss how this happened and what lessons we might apply today?

Rivlins: Bipartisan negotiation is neither rare nor nonexistent today, but we will return to this point later. It is certainly true that bipartisan legislation that lowers the deficit has become an endangered species. Alice devotes two chapters of her memoirs to the Clinton Administration and the 1994 turning point that saw Newt Gingrich and the Republicans take control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Clinton had been promoting deficit reduction and the Republicans similarly campaigned on calls for a balanced budget amendment. Where they differed was on their plans to reduce the red ink. What followed was an epic budget standoff with the threat of a government debt default and two government shutdowns. Gingrich miscalculated how much voters appreciate their government and was forced to back down. Having pressed the limits of confrontation without achievement, the Republicans changed tactics and worked with Clinton on the FY1998 budget that balanced spending cuts and increased revenue. Aided by a surging “dot.com” economy, the budget achieved a surplus for four years in a row (FY1998 to FY2001).

Tactics of this sort returned in the Obama years when Tea Party Republicans shut down the government over Obamacare and continued when Trump shut down the government in an attempt to get funding for his border wall. Each time, however, public backlash forced an end to the standoff. What we should learn from these events is that partisan hardball has never been successful in achieving results — rather, bipartisan cooperation is how Washington has delivered for the American people. 

How We Communicate Matters

You argue bipartisanship happens “more than we think but less than we need.” Can you share some examples of recent bipartisan successes? And how do we better communicate these successes to the American people?

Rivlins: Most of the bills that become law do so with substantial support from both parties. Unfortunately, many people do not realize this, as the press has a great interest in covering conflict and stand-off and Congress has been giving them plenty of material. Nonetheless, bipartisan bills pass all the time — even when the two sides seem hopelessly far apart and hostile. For instance, a great deal of bipartisan legislation passed while Trump was in office, including some of the largest spending bills in history to respond to the pandemic. 

Biden has followed a two-track strategy to pass legislation – one that involves both parties and another that requires only one. Regarding the latter, Democratic bills were stalled for more than a year in protracted negotiations to get the needed 50 votes. They finally reached a compromise with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. The bipartisan track, in contrast, has delivered a major infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act, bipartisan gun legislation, the Emmett Till anti-lynching law, support for Ukraine and NATO expansion, and a bipartisan bill enhancing veterans’ health. The first two years of the Biden Administration have shown that 60 out of 100 senators is a much easier hurdle to clear than 50 out of 50 Democratic senators.

One crucial way we can better communicate these victories to the American people is simply to celebrate bipartisan achievements. We have had many occasions where some lawmakers are toasting the half a loaf while others are still complaining about the failure to get the other half. In the same vein, we would greatly benefit from passing smaller bills more often. Small bills are easier to explain and understand, making it easier to communicate the legislation’s benefits to the public both before and after it passes.

You discuss a number of important rule and norm changes within Congress — in particular, the Hastert Rule, the Consensus Calendar and Discharge Petition, and budget process improvements. Can you discuss? 

Rivlins: Alice’s final words of wisdom were that we need to “change the rules and change the tone” of politics and policy making in Congress. The last chapter of the book details dozens of specific proposals to achieve both goals. The Hastert Rule is not really a rule at all. It was a choice by Speaker Dennis Hastert, and later Speaker John Boehner, to maintain tighter partisan control over the House by making bipartisanship far more difficult. The Consensus Calendar was a choice Speaker Nancy Pelosi made, at the request of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, to loosen partisan control by encouraging bipartisan legislation.

The key insight of this section of the book is that it is very much possible to overcome the House and Senate rules and principles that are used to block partisan and bipartisan legislation and maintain stalemate almost indefinitely. When true bipartisan agreement is reached to address an issue, the rules are not an impediment. We need more will to find bipartisan solutions, because there is always a way to pass them. 

Putting Democracy Above Partisanship 

You show public opinion polling that is broadly pessimistic about our political and economic divisions, as well as America’s current standing in the world. How do we start to change these perceptions?

Rivlins: The central assertion of the book is that the best way to defend our democracy is to make democracy work better. We need to get past longstanding partisan standoffs on solvable issues and deliver more consensus solutions. 

As an example, the book criticizes both the Republican habit of proposing massive tax cut legislation as the solution to all our economic problems and the Democratic habit of proposing massive spending bills. Instead, we argue, smaller bills are needed to reform the tax code, with the goal of raising the revenue necessary to fund the government Americans desire while maintaining fairness. Likewise, we need smaller spending bills to make necessary investments in future prosperity, especially for the people and places that have been falling behind. 

Alice would have supported nearly every element of the Build Back Better agenda, but she would not have seen the need to pass it all at once. If the press cannot describe scores of separate proposals, then the public will not learn how the legislation is helping them. Franklin Roosevelt knew this and the Clinton Administration relearned it. Perhaps we are learning it again now. The book ends with a call for all Americans, whether inside or outside of government, to get more involved in changing the tone and substance of our political discourse. We list several organizations that are working at the national level and in local communities to build greater understanding, dialogue, and empathy among various political factions and identity groups. We are sure we missed many worthy organizations, and encourage readers to consider lists that can be found through The Bridge Alliance and DividedWeFall.org. Our nation may be increasingly divided, but all of us can get involved in helping to knit it back together.


If you enjoyed this article, please make sure to like, comment, and share below. You can purchase your copy of “Divided We Fall” or read more Divided We Fall book reviews

Allan and Sheri Rivlin
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Allan Rivlin and Sheri Rivlin are the CEO and president, respectively, of Zen Political Research, a public opinion, marketing research, and communications strategy consulting firm founded in 2015. They are the son and daughter-in-law of Alice M. Rivlin, and since she passed away in 2019, they have been working to complete her final manuscript, “Divided We Fall, Why Consensus Matters” due for publication in September 2022 by Brookings Press.

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