March 22, 2018
In preparing for this article, I researched some quotes about bipartisanship by some of today’s prominent political leaders. People like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell have shared some great sentiments about bipartisanship, but have clearly ignored what they said, leading the partisan gridlock. They talk the talk; they don’t walk the walk. People say they want bipartisanship, but their actions tell another story. And actions speak volumes.
While everyone says they want it and it’s important for effective governing, I seriously challenge that.
There are several conditions needed to function in a bipartisan way and they presently don’t exist. Also, there are factors and currents today that directly impede bipartisanship.
One underlying condition that can promote bipartisanship is an acceptance of the outcome of elections. For nearly 20 years, we have seen the losing party refuse to accept the election’s outcome. From Democrats asserting George W. Bush’s election was not legitimate, to Republican Senate and House leaders saying they would dedicate themselves to seeing that Barack Obama did not succeed, to Democrats and the media being an active part of the resistance to Donald Trump, we see no sign of working together.
Additionally, the last several major federal laws have been passed on purely partisan votes. That’s not a good formula for implementation and popular acceptance. The last major bipartisan legislation was No Child Left Behind. When the party not in power is dedicated to making sure the party in power doesn’t get a win, or when each side’s main strategy is making sure the other side doesn’t get a win, our country loses.
Once upon a time, congressional party leaders came together to fashion legislation, negotiated compromises and rounded up the votes necessary for passage from each caucus. Today, the leaders segregate their caucuses into solid party blocks of yes or no. Leaders of each legislative caucus spout polarizing talking points, which play to the most dogmatic element of party bases, rile up talk-show hosts, get donors to write checks and draw battle plans for the next election. It’s more about the next election than doing what can be done since the last election.
Witness the recent State of the Union address: the Republicans stood and applauded just about everything the president said; the Democrats sat for everything and applauded nothing the president said, even when some of the things he addressed positively were ideas and legislation they have proposed. This seems to be our new pattern for State of the Union addresses. Decorum, respect, courtesy and civility seem to be history. Sadly, this is the new normal.
The nation is polarized like we have seldom seen. We used to share common goals and only differ on how to achieve them. Now, it seems each side has decidedly different goals. We are in our corners and no one has the courage to come to the middle.
Governing and legislating should include the classic method of getting to yes—by respecting each side, but by also recognizing that there are legitimate differences and interests, and being willing to hear them, understand them and compromise. Now, compromise is a dirty word.
There are reasons, forces and currents pushing against bipartisanship—magnetic forces contributing to polarization and partisan division—including:
- The 24/7 election cycle uses discord to win the next election.
- Partisan television, radio and blogs drive partisan bases further apart.
- Colleges and universities struggle to have intellectual and political diversity on campuses and repeatedly fail to create a culture that allows different views to be expressed without disruption.
- Special interest groups focus on the issues that divide us rather than what unites us, and raise money by pandering to fear and anger.
- We no longer respect opponents with different views; we demean them with extreme and loathsome labels (racist, bigot, sexist and more).
- Polarization and division: Through the prisms of geography, culture, economics and politics we are really further apart.
- Fewer people identify as “in the middle” than 10 years ago.
- Because of gerrymandered districts, federal and state legislators focus on the most extreme views of their constituencies because those voters determine primary elections.
- Leaders don’t seem to be speaking to “the middle.” Moderates have become marginalized in both parties.
- When elected leaders suggest compromise, they are skewered as weak.
Is there hope? The DACA debate offers a classic opportunity for getting to yes: some reasonable and functional immigration reform and some needed border security; certainty for the Dreamers; and an end to dysfunctional immigration policies that are problematic to the security and sanctity of our borders.
However, today, it seems more about not giving either side a victory than it is about giving America a better policy.
How is that not dysfunctional?
Alan Novak is a former chair of the Ursinus College Board of Trustees, an attorney and former chairman of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania. In 2017, he was awarded the inaugural Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life in Pennsylvania, recognizing his civility in an era of bipartisan hostility.