What Would Alice Rivlin Say About Mending Political Divides?

DWF Thumbnail Reasons for Optimism
DWF Thumbnail Reasons for Optimism

Bipartisan Cooperation Is the Best Strategy to Defend Our Troubled Democracy

By Allan and Sheri Rivlin, CEO and President of Zen Political Research

Following the passing of Alice Rivlin—our mother, mother-in-law, and former vice-chair of the Federal Reserve—we are often asked whether there are reasons to believe that contemporary political divides can be mended in the near future. Alice was a true optimist and, in her final and forthcoming book Divided We Fall: Why Consensus Matters, she argued that there are abundant reasons for hope in these troubling times. In completing Alice’s final work, we have sought to extend Alice’s insights and answers to this question by making the case for the power of American democracy to heal itself. 

American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword

Alice was famous for her optimism, but near her death, she was alarmed at the state of American politics and policy. She started the book because she feared that, to quote the first line, “The American experiment is in danger of failing.” She died in May 2019, so she didn’t know the half of the danger. She did not live to see the first president ever impeached twice and acquitted twice with nearly every vote cast along strict party lines. She did not experience the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests or the global pandemic. And she did not see a president refuse to accept the results of a national election, plot to reverse the outcome, and inspire a violent Capitol insurrection. As such, our goal is to offer Alice’s answer to the question, as well as our own answer informed by these more recent events.

Alice’s reputation as an optimist was earned during tough economic downturns. She viewed the economy as perpetually balancing great strengths (continuous innovation, a productive workforce, and a well-functioning financial system) and looming threats (income and wealth inequality, high national debt, and over-regulation in some areas and under-regulation in others). She called on policymakers to use the strengths to address the weaknesses and she expected positive long-term outcomes.  

She also viewed American political history as an interplay between great strengths (a strong Constitution and Bill of Rights, our commitment to democracy, effective federal, state, and local governments, and a trusted court system) and great challenges (divisions by politics, class, race, gender, and geography that have been expressed through violence, discrimination, and enforced inequality). She maintained confidence that the strengths would always rise to meet the challenges, quoting President Clinton’s belief that “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” She put her faith in concerned Americans to become engaged in defending democracy by making democracy work better. 

Legislative Dysfunction as a Driver of Political Division 

In the book, we make the distinction between mending political divides and making Washington more effective at passing legislation. But Alice blends scholarship and personal experience to build the case that the two problems are related and that both are getting worse. Uncompromising hyper-partisanship has become an obstacle to legislative problem-solving. Congressional stalemates on budgets, taxes, and economic policy, as well as health care, immigration, gun safety, climate change, and many other issues, are causing declining public confidence in the government’s capacity to deliver progress and prosperity for the American people. One effect of this is the erosion of public support for the institutions that underpin our democratic system.  

The book details the decline in bipartisan cooperation from the Reagan administration through the Obama years to make clear that hyper-partisan divisions and congressional dysfunction did not start when Donald Trump entered politics. But Alice also cites the many times bipartisan deals have been reached, even when our politics seemed unusually divided. Notable examples include when Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neil reached an agreement to extend the life of Social Security, and the agreements between President Obama and Senator Mitch McConnell in the lame duck session after the 2010 elections, despite the arrival of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.  

There may be causal links between political divisions and Washington’s dysfunction in both directions, but Alice emphasized legislative dysfunction as a driver of political division. She pinned her hopes for mending our political divides on increasing the amount of meaningful bipartisan legislation. “The best way to defend democracy,” she would say, “is to make democracy work better.” 

A Call for a New Patriotism: Commitment to Truth and Reason

Defending democracy requires defending our commitment to political discourse based on facts, evidence, reason, and the truth. With the January 6th commission adding evidence to the record compiled by journalists, law enforcement, and participants, we are just now learning the full breadth and depth of Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine our institutions of democracy: free and fair elections, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, congressional oversight, a free press, and the many independent centers of expertise, including the Congressional Budget Office, the CDC, the Diplomatic Corps, and foreign and military intelligence. 

Because she died before the worst aspects of this threat were fully revealed, she left it to us, her coauthors, to answer the question of whether bipartisan cooperation is still a sound and feasible strategy to reverse our decline. In the age of “alternative facts,” the “Big Lie,” and the Capitol insurrection, is bipartisanship possible or desirable? Our answer, and we are certain Alice would agree, is an emphatic yes! Uncompromising partisanship put us in danger and bipartisan cooperation is the best strategy to defend our democracy. 

Compromise in defense of democracy and the truth cannot mean compromising either democracy or the truth, nor can it mean making compromises with those who undermine democracy or ignore the truth. But only a small minority of American voters and elected officials are waging this assault on American democracy. The challenge is to unite the majority of Americans and their elected leaders who support democracy to join forces in proving that democracy can work better to solve public problems.

Reasons to be Optimistic 

There are abundant reasons for hope. Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by campaigning on themes of national unity. Senate Republicans have defied Trump’s pressure to oppose Democrats in passing a major infrastructure bill. In June, Congress passed bipartisan gun safety legislation, amounting to the first major federal gun violence legislation in decades. 

Infrastructure and guns could then be checked off Alice’s list of areas where compromise solutions supported by majorities have been worked out but not yet achieved.  Her list also included immigration and climate change. Following the 2020 election and the January 6th insurrection, we would add restoration of the Voting Rights Act and reform of the Electoral Count Act—the 1887 law defining the procedures for certifying national elections, which Trump’s coup attempt sought to exploit—as direct efforts to strengthen our democracy. 

Senator McConnell has expressed interest in supporting a bipartisan reform of the Electoral Count Act, which is a clear signal that he may be willing to join efforts to save democracy from the MAGA assault. Democrats must prioritize achieving this reform, if not before the 2022 election, then in a lame duck session after it.  

These steps alone will not be enough to defeat the continuing assault on American democracy. Divided We Fall is a call for a new patriotism. It is an invitation to Americans across the political spectrum—from the most progressive Democrats, through moderates and independents, to conservative but anti-MAGA Republicans—to unite by voting in elections at every level for candidates who support fair elections and truth-based politics and policy. 

If you enjoyed this piece, you can find more Divided We Fall op-eds here.

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Allan and Sheri Rivlin

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” was published in October 2022 by Brookings Press.

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