How might political polarization and gridlock end?

Unclear what could change the current dynamic

President Joe Biden has said he wants to bridge partisan differences. It hasn't worked out, and it's unclear how it could happen, Stu Rothenberg writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Joe Biden has said he wants to bridge partisan differences. It hasn't worked out, and it's unclear how it could happen, Stu Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 28, 2021 at 6:00am

There is widespread agreement that those who voted for Donald Trump remain supportive and enthusiastic about the former president. At the same time, anti-Trump voters are equally locked into their view that he and his allies remain a threat to democracy.

Yes, there are still some swing voters, but the country has been deeply divided for years, and there are few signs of that changing during Joe Biden’s presidency.

A June 16-22, 2020, survey by the Pew Research Center documented strong differences between the parties on the seriousness of issues, ranging from how ethnic and racial minorities are treated to the dangers of climate change, the affordability of health care and the effect of illegal immigration.

Pew polling conducted a year earlier, from Sept. 3-15, 2019, found that while there were differences within each party based on age, gender and other demographic factors, “it remains the case that the differences between the two parties are starker than those within the two parties.”

Given the current breadth and depth of the fissure separating pro-Trump and anti-Trump voters, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, it’s hard to know how to bridge that divide. 

But while it is understandable that observers are focused on our divisions, it’s likely that the current polarization will end at some point, as other periods of intense partisanship and polarization have. What might bring about that change?

Redistricting, of course, could have an impact by creating more competitive districts, altering the current system under which most elections are fought out in primaries, rather than in general elections. But I am not talking about those kinds of changes, which are impossible given our current politics.

Demographics

A fundamental shift in partisanship resulting from changes to the American electorate could create a strong majority party and a much weaker minority party. Such a fundamental shift could alter what the two parties stand for and how they would compete.

For example, the shrinking clout of white voters, combined with generational shifts and the continuing movement of the suburbs to the Democratic Party, could turn swing states like Georgia and Arizona reliably blue and transform a reliably GOP state like Texas into a swing state. 

On the other hand, if Republican efforts to appeal to minority voters (Blacks and Hispanics, in particular) are successful, that could alter the partisan divide, producing a GOP majority.

In either case, rather than having two roughly equal parties/coalitions for which every issue is life or death, we would have what Samuel Lubell called a political sun and a political moon. “It is within the majority party that the issues of any particular period are fought out; while the minority party shines in reflected radiance of the heat thus generated,” the political analyst once wrote.

Electing a centrist president

Would electing a centrist or moderate as president offer an opportunity to bring the country together? Probably not.

Biden has talked repeatedly about uniting the country, but with very limited success so far. Republicans have responded by focusing on his big spending proposals and talking about socialism and left-wing Democrats, as they seek to demonize the president and his party.

I doubt even someone like the late Sen. John McCain, who had a reputation as politically independent, could have bridged the current divide, were he president. McCain certainly couldn’t be nominated by the current Republican Party, which sees compromise as treason and regarded his vote on the Affordable Care Act as unpardonable.

Bipartisanship is an appealing message to many voters. But base voters are more interested in demonizing the opposition and pushing a partisan and ideological agenda than in bringing back civility and compromise. 

A common enemy

In the past, a common enemy brought Americans together through the “rally around the flag” effect. It happened after Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs crisis and 9/11. 

But we currently have a common enemy — COVID-19 — and it hasn’t brought the country together. In some ways, it has divided us more.

Still, I can imagine an attack on America that would bring the country together. But it would have to be something so incredibly painful that I’d rather not think about it. And in any case, it’s not clear how long unity and “bipartisanship” would last before the finger-pointing would begin.

Technology and how we handle it

New technologies and ways of thinking have produced talk radio, talk TV and now the internet, all of which contribute to our polarization.  

The media has made compromise less possible by taking partisan sides and feeding each side the red meat it wants. To make matters worse, some media outlets traffic in untruths, give voice to the most ideological elements of each party and promote partisan attacks and incivility.

But new technologies could arise that change some of this — or existing platforms could change their ways of operating, thereby encouraging civil debate and compromise. As one political consultant reminded me, “We have had disruptive technologies before.”

Fatigue, then reform

Partisan polarization with two relatively equal parties takes its toll on the country and on voters. It is difficult for Washington to address important issues, since each side can essentially veto what the other wants to accomplish. And it breeds distrust of the opposition’s motives and allegiances.

Of course, the resulting paralysis could eventually produce a reform movement — either inside one party or outside of the two parties — that would place a high priority on political compromise, civility and the rule of law.

But it could take two years or 10 years or 50 years for that to happen, and there would be no guarantee the country would embrace the same values that it did for the first 200 years.

I know that I haven’t answered any questions in this column. That isn’t my intention. After spending the past few years whining about polarization, partisanship and incivility, it’s probably time to consider how we might move beyond the current political gridlock. I’d like to hear some suggestions.