Extreme partisanship, we are often told, is the new normal. Americans are sorting into clusters of the same opinions, we choose our media diets so that discordant views never enter our partisan echo chambers, and the major political parties have gotten so adept at gerrymandering that, in essence, our representatives choose us rather than the other way around.
There is much truth to these charges, unfortunately, but they miss something very important about the American people: Most of us do not conform fully to the political agenda of either party. While the simple satisfaction of tribal purity seemingly rules the day, our success as a country requires leaders who are brave enough to forge the consensus our Founding Fathers made necessary in the blueprint of our government.
Unfortunately, our current system rewards politicians who appeal to narrow partisan constituencies that demand ideological rigidity. This wins elections. In the last two decades, the number of “swing” districts that are likely to shift from one Congress to the next has fallen by two-thirds. Is it any wonder bipartisanship have largely disappeared on Capitol Hill?
With these broken incentives, dysfunction is baked into the system. Politicians in both parties run for election with seemingly bold proposals to fix major issues, such as aging infrastructure and ballooning debt, that never seem to make it into law. The American people see this failure, along with the inability of Congress to execute even the basic functions of government such as passing timely budgets, and they grow even more discouraged. That disillusionment explains why a majority of Americans have little or no confidence in Congress or in either of the major parties.
At the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, we have launched a Commission on Civility and Effective Governance. Our commissioners, including former elected officials from both parties, executive branch officials, political advocates, and business leaders, have spent decades thinking about what constrains lawmakers and shapes their behavior for better and worse. We are developing recommendations for political reforms that make government more responsive to the needs of its citizens, and rewards politicians for pragmatism over partisanship.
Our recommendations will promote the kinds of changes our country needs to get government working for the American people rather than for partisans. The challenge we face is that the people we need to implement those changes are our current elected officials, who have been rewarded by our current system. That it is so important to recognize politicians who, even in this dysfunctional dynamic, are practicing the civic virtues which we hold dear. This month (October 2018) we are honoring Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Governor John Kasich of Ohio for their willingness to look beyond party in search of pragmatic yet effective solutions in their states and their advocacy for bipartisanship across the country.
These governors on opposite sides of the aisle understand how choices made Washington directly impact the lives of people in their diverse states. They have worked together to advocate for health care reforms that stabilize insurance markets, increase coverage, and control cost. They have demanded trade policy that looks forward to promote an innovative economy and relief for people hurt by escalating tariffs.
Most importantly, both have taken a proactive stance against gerrymandering. In Colorado, Governor Hickenlooper is supporting a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to prohibit partisan gerrymandering. Governor Kasich has called for reform of redistricting in Ohio that passed in the state legislature and a ballot initiative earlier this year. Both initiatives seek to promote bipartisanship and compromise in one of the most highly charged political process issues we face.
These are exactly the kinds of hard choices that we should be encouraging. It is difficult to overstate the power that partisans wield when drawing district boundaries for seats in Congress. The American political system thrives instead when good citizens place country above party. Redistricting reform alone will not solve all the problems we face, nor will two state governors reaching across the aisle. But this is an essential first step. Governors Kasich and Hickenlooper are doing crucial work to ensure that our democracy truly reflects the will of the people.
The award the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress will be giving Governors Hickenlooper and Kasich is called the “Publius Award.” Publius was the pen name that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay used when writing the Federalist Papers, the collection of essays supporting the adoption of the Constitution.
They had wildly different political views, but they came together to advocate for the reforms that created the country we live in today. They knew that a democratic system that required compromise was the best safeguard of liberty in a country as large and fractious as ours, and the best assurance that politicians served the broadest good for the citizens. More than 230 years later, we are proud to see leaders who still do.
Glenn Nye is the president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He represented Virginia in Congress from 2009 to 2011.