Encouraging Bipartisanship: How To Improve Governance and Decrease Polarization in America
Welcome to the launch of Divided We Fall’s next series, “Encouraging Bipartisanship!” Here at Divided We Fall, we host weekly written debates between respondents on topical political issues, which we call Political Pen Pals. In previous series, we have hosted Political Pen Pals between scholars, activists, journalists, and former politicians on the direction of U.S. foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the U.S. Constitution, and the expectations of the Biden administration. Now, Divided We Fall returns to its roots to investigate our own bipartisan values and the unfolding democratic crisis in the United States.
At twenty topics of debate, “Encouraging Bipartisanship” represents our longest series to date. This length reflects the sheer complexity of political polarization in the United States, a problem that unforgivingly disabuses elevator pitches on what ails the United States and simple solutions to resolve those ailments. So, we have portioned these topics into five thematic sections to help organize the many facets of polarization in the United States.
In Part One, on the nature of polarization, we explore how polarized the United States truly is. The public is convinced that the answer is ‘very,’ and yet there exist arguments that cast doubt on the supposed delineations and severity of the lines that divide us. In this section, our contributors look back upon the history of political polarization in the United States to shine a light on how we arrived at our current situation and ask if today’s level of polarization is truly unprecedented in American history. This section will also consider if one party has contributed more to our growing polarization, a phenomenon that academics have coined asymmetric polarization. Lastly, this section will discuss ‘The Big Sort,’ or the idea that growing polarization reflects Americans’ preferences to move toward like-minded communities.
Part Two investigates the contributions of our electoral system to polarization. Our Pen Pals on primary elections and gerrymandering consider the degree to which closed primaries, in which a party’s more ideological base tends to vote, has produced more extreme candidates and the degree to which gerrymandering has protected those candidates from competition. In this section, we investigate how changes in election-financing regulation have enabled hyper-partisan candidates to run competitively and if increasing voter turnout would introduce a moderating force to the electorate.
Part Three shifts attention to congressional gridlock, political polarization’s dance partner in the vicious cycle of partisanship. Our contributors discuss if the ban on earmarks in 2010 under then-Speaker of the House John Boehner hurt Congress’s ability to wheel and deal and if their return would help purchase compromise. We look at the idea of term limits and if their introduction would free politicians to compromise with members on the other side of the aisle, knowing they do not have to answer to their constituents if they can’t run for reelection. In a similar vein, we consider the idea of “Secret Congress,” or giving politicians more leeway to legislate without constant public scrutiny. We ask if a multiparty system would dilute the internecine politics of our current two-party system and inject a true caucus of moderates and independents. Lastly, we canvass contributors for additional ideas on how to reduce obstructionism in Congress.
Part Four takes on the media and its encouragement of polarization in the United States. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has received much attention in the news lately. Originally intended to encourage the growth of the internet by protecting platform companies from responsibility for material published on their sites, many Americans and politicians are now frustrated with the free pass it seems to give to social media to spread misinformation and the unchecked authority to adjudicate bans. What we want to know is if Section 230 can be reformed without violating the First Amendment rights of these social media platforms. On the other hand, we also dive into whether or not the return of the FCC Fairness Doctrine — which required broadcasters to provide balanced coverage on controversial topics and was abandoned in 1987 under President Reagan — could accomplish its objectives in today’s diffused media landscape. Finally, we ask if fact-checking news articles and punditry has actually helped prevent the spread of misinformation.
Our final section of the series reflects on the virtue of bipartisanship. At the heart of polarization is the unswerving certainty of one’s values; we start by asking if bipartisanship is always desirable if it requires the compromise of one’s values. We then highlight a recent bipartisan success story — President Biden’s infrastructure bill that gained the support of 19 Republican senators and 13 Republican representatives — as well as some of the many organizations that are working to decrease political polarization. We end with an exchange between a Republican and a Democrat discussing one policy or value traditionally embodied by the other’s party which they think the other has generally gotten right.
This is a comprehensive series and yet only represents a brief survey of the many possible causes and cures of polarization in the United States. By the end, it can be easy to conclude that our democracy is bleeding by a thousand cuts and that purported solutions to polarization–open primaries, term limits, media regulation– are inadequate to reverse its course. This series might leave one confused and uncertain about how to proceed in reforming our country. And yet, in this uncertainty lies the critical point: our society, culture, and politics are so complex, and even when we think we have the answers, they often turn out to be incomplete if not outright wrong. If there is one lesson to be found in this series, it is that it is often more productive to ask why we are wrong rather than seek to confirm why we are right. Perhaps more than compromise as a value in itself, it is humility which we must recognize as the foundation to bipartisanship.
We are grateful to our many contributors who took the time to complicate polarization in the United States for us. We hope you find this series enlightening, empowering, and inspiring.
Andy Shi, Executive Producer, Divided We Fall