A high-powered group of former politicians, public servants, and others has offered recommendations for three crucial ways American politics must change if it is to reverse the increasing polarization that is driving Washington and alienating a vast swath of Americans.
Even as political polarization rises, some 80 percent of Americans still inhabit a middle area, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. They may want Congress to work together to solve big problems, but many of them are disengaged and distant from the political process.
To address those issues, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, has marshaled former governors of both parties, members of various White House administrations, and members of Congress – including former Senate majority leaders Trent Lott (R) and Tom Daschle (D) – to prescribe three potential fixes.
The ideas range from the wonky (suggestions on how to handle amendments and filibusters in the Senate) to the practical (starting a national primary election day to encourage voter participation). And they demand more engagement from average Americans, too.
The danger is that Americans have “come to fear our polarization is permanent,” said the center’s president, Jason Grumet. “We disagree,” he went on, adding that the country has “the ability to self-correct.”
The recommendations focus on three areas: the election system, Congress, and what Americans can do.
To restore trust in the electoral system, the 29 commissioners propose that states adopt bipartisan commissions to draw diverse voting districts, replacing the ones drawn by state legislatures that often produce safe districts for incumbents of one party. And they recommend transparency in campaign financing.
More voter participation can help reduce polarization. To that end, they urge states move to open or semi-open primaries that allow cross-party voting, to proactively register voters, and to join a national primary voting day in June.
Much of the recommendation involves getting legislators to have far more face time with each other. That means more time in Washington – three full weeks in D.C., one week at home; monthly meetings between the president and congressional leaders; a return to committee work in which committee chairs actually spearhead legislation and members work with each other.
The report also recommends changes to the Senate, which has strayed far from its “deliberative” tradition. And the commissioners also urged budgeting for two years at a time – to avoid the annual budget blow-ups.
What Americans can do
You can’t “make” Americans vote or the unmotivated suddenly engage in politics. But the public can find its inner civic mojo through public service, the commissioners believe. During the past five decades, volunteerism has fallen, charitable giving is lower, and more young adults question the value of seeking office – indeed, many have grown up in the shadow of dysfunction and regard voting as merely feeding a broken system.
“A new cultural expectation to serve” should encourage all Americans, aged 18 to 28, to commit to a full year of service in their communities and the nation, according to the recommendations. Colleges and universities should support this goal, as should rejuvenated civic education in schools. Resources should be made available to expand federal programs such as Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, which are overrun with applications. Service, the commissioners maintain, introduces Americans to people with different views and backgrounds, and gives them a stake in their communities.
“The bottom line is, the citizens have to become involved in this process,” said former Sen. Olympia Snow (R) of Maine. “Politicians respond to incentives,” she said, suggesting that Americans go to political events and ask candidates whether they plan to work across the aisle. “All it takes is for us to get engaged,” said the former senator.
The commission’s recommendations “are a solid set of reforms,” says Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute and coauthor of a book on hyperpartisanship. But he has a couple “qualms” about the effort.
First, he says, the problems of polarization are more cultural while the recommended solutions are more structural.
Second, the report treats both parties equally – when it is Republicans who have become far more extreme, he says.
But structural fixes – like more face time among lawmakers – can help get at cultural problems, he says. Moreover, not making one party a villain could help getting both Republicans and Democrats involved, even if the result is “a more sanitized” set of recommendations.