If one accepts the explanation of causes we have laid out, what does this suggest about solutions to partisan dysfunction?
We believe the answer lies in changing population attitudes and through those, the political behaviors voters reward in representatives. We must influence the population to reconnect with the principle that collaboration is not only a necessity if we are to achieve anything of national importance, but that it is in fact a route to greater success for all sides if we can be skilled enough at finding common ground on which to move forward, as opposed to continually obstructing each other for decades on end.
Most political scientists prescribe solutions addressing the mechanisms of democracy: rules governing legislative conduct (filibusters, cloture, leadership selection, etc.), campaigns (primaries & finance), voting, districting, etc. NYU’s Richard H. Pildes encapsulates this view, “Others might be troubled by a political culture that is characterized by divisiveness, lack of civil disagreement, and the like, but my concern is effective governance.”1
We don’t dismiss the value of that, but believe it both problematic and insufficient to solve partisan divisiveness.
Problematic because, if government participants are too divided to collaborate, how will they collaborate to fix those same divisions? Many scholars have observed this dilemma, with UC-San Diego’s Gary C Jacobson concluding, “If there is to be a solution under present electoral institutions, it will come from voters fed up with dysfunctional government who find a way to punish its perpetrators (or to threaten credibly to do so) and from political leaders who view their individual and collective fates as better served by cooperative problem solving than by gridlock-inducing position taking.”2
Insufficient because government mechanics are not the core problem; they are a representation of the underlying problem. The core problem is not even that the American people disagree — which in many circumstances is normal and healthy — but that they have developed antipathy, anger and outright disrespect toward those they disagree with. This is a cultural attitude that must be addressed. This is what drives our demands that our representatives not compromise; what fuels our inability to collaborate even outside of politics (wearing masks?); what foments growing violence, as at the Capitol in January 2021. Solely adjusting the mechanisms of government will not resolve this.
Therefore we need to adjust attitudes. This is hard, and not really a political science question, which is why many such scholars ignore it.3 But if we can evolve attitudes, then our demands of our representatives will evolve as well. The representatives will then evolve themselves, or be replaced with those that will, just as the Tea Party had the opposite effect in the early 2010s. And that is the path toward reduced partisan dysfunction.
What, then is the evolved attitude we need to (re-)instill?
- If we want to get anything done, collaboration is unavoidable.
- But going further, it should actually be an accelerant for everyone’s prosperity.
1 Richard H. Pildes, “Focus on Political Fragmentation, Not Polarization,” in Solutions to Political Polarization in America, Nathaniel Persily Ed. New York,: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 146.
2 Gary C. Jacobson, “Eroding the Electoral FOundations of Partisan Polariztion,”in Persily, p. 90.
3 Pildes, p. 149.