We don’t need less partisanship on Capitol Hill. We need responsible partisanship.
This was the objective for social scientists in 1950, when the American Political Science Association (APSA) published a landmark report titled “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.” Since Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government in 1885, political scientists had championed the creation of more ideologically cohesive political parties. The model for the future President and other scholars was the parliamentary system used in countries such as England. Strong and united parties would give voters real choices on Election Day and enable presidents and congressional majorities of the same party to move forward with bold domestic agendas. The report argued that stronger opposition parties would provide the electorate a genuine chance to register their displeasure with “the party in power, developing, defining, and presenting the policy alternatives which are necessary for a true choice in reaching public decisions.”
The APSA report asserted that the internal divisions between Southern and liberal Northern Democrats, as well as the fault lines separating Northern and Midwestern Republicans, were detrimental to the “heartbeat of American democracy.” The fragmented structure of American politics, a product of federalism and the separation of powers, resulted in political parties that formed around diverse economic and regional coalitions rather than becoming ideologically coherent institutions. “Historical and other factors,” the APSA report stated, “have caused the American two-party system to operate as two loose associations of state and local organizations, with very little national machinery and very little national cohesion.” The result was that even when one party controlled both branches of the federal government, little got done. a bipartisan congressional coalition of conservatives buried legislation within committees. “Party responsibility at the polls,” the political scientists complained, “thus tends to vanish.” APSA called for reforms that would create “an effective party system.” Democrats and Republicans would finally be “able to bring forth programs to which they commit themselves” and possess “sufficient internal cohesion to carry out these programs.”
APSA emphasized two definitions of party “responsibility.” The first was external, which meant that parties needed to remain accountable to voters at election time: “Party responsibility to the public, enforced in elections, implies that there be more than one party, for the public can hold a party responsible only if it has a choice. As a means of achieving responsibility, the clarification of party policy also tends to keep public debate on a more realistic level, restraining the inclination of party spokesmen to make unsubstantiated statements and charges.” Second, “responsible” parties had to create mechanisms that would enable party leaders to keep elected representatives in line to follow through on the promises they made on the campaign trail. This would include a congressional process whereby party leaders maintained sufficient power to determine committee assignments and set the legislative schedule.
From the perspective of 2023, these recommendations seem far off the mark—the epitome of the law of unintended consequences, whereby well-intentioned reforms end up making things worse. The critics of the APSA report seem to have been on target when they warned about the deleterious effect strong ideological politics could have on our democracy. Reading the report through the lens of our times, when strong parties have brought Washington into a constant state of gridlock and vitriol, it is hard to imagine that there is anything to be gained by revisiting this earlier vision of reform.
But the vision of “responsible partisanship” that was the basis of the report, and that soon became a foundation for congressional reform in the 1970s, should not be discarded. In fact, this concept of partisanship offers an important strategy for improving how Congress operates. With our politics trapped between an unsustainable status quo and an unrealistic yearning to return to an old vision of bipartisanship—which was itself rife with dysfunction—”responsible partisanship” offers the best bet for realistically moving American politics toward a healthier state of affairs.
The Rise of Partisan Polarization
During the 1980s, the economist Herbert Stein famously quipped, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The statement is true of our era of hyper-intense political polarization.
The challenges posed by strong and ideological parties are multifold. As Democrats and Republicans have moved further apart ideologically, with the number of moderates dwindling in both parties, it has become extremely difficult to achieve bipartisan support for almost any major legislation. The kind of enduring coalitions that were once the basis for major policy breakthroughs like the Great Society are rarely possible. The challenge is even more difficult given the asymmetric character of this polarization. Since the 1980s, Republicans have radicalized much more than their opponents, moving to the far extremes in terms of their methods of political warfare and far to the right with regard to policy preferences. With the two parties at odds ideologically, and with Republicans having abandoned most guardrails, Capitol Hill is perpetually stuck.
President Biden has shown that under certain conditions one party can find ways to legislate, with the help of a few votes from the other side. Divided government, as the political scientist David Mayhew argued, creates strong incentives for occasional cooperation. But in too many cases, partisan polarization reduces the ability of Congress to tackle big problems with big solutions. Climate change, immigration, gun control, racial injustice, public health infrastructure, economic inequality, and other key issues remain unaddressed. The longer that partisan gridlock prevents legislative action, the more damaging, and deadly, the problems become.
What’s more, the ordinary processes of government have been weaponized as tools of partisan warfare. Passing the annual congressional budget, for instance, has become a fierce point of political contention. The arcane budget process has turned into an unexpected boxing match in which Democrats and Republicans fight over “dynamic scoring” and the “pay-go rule” when trying to squeeze programs into budget reconciliation bills that are protected from the filibuster.
Most egregious has been the willingness of the GOP to weaponize votes over raising the federal debt ceiling. This had been a straightforward process going back to 1917. Congress voted to increase the amount of money that the federal government could borrow to cover expenditures it had authorized. While there were always a few symbolic votes against increasing the debt ceiling, and in 1979 the Democratic Congress waited so long to pass debt ceiling legislation that the United States technically defaulted (though Treasury quickly corrected the problem), lawmakers wielded this threat only when it was clear that the legislation would pass. Now things are different. In 2011, Tea Party Republicans led an effort to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless President Obama agreed to significantly reduce spending. It was at this moment that Speaker John Boehner, who had opened the doors of power to this generation of conservatives, realized he was dealing with “legislative terrorists.” The Administration ultimately conceded to draconian demands, thus averting a financial meltdown. But the situation reached such lows that Standard & Poor’s downgraded its rating of the United States, and the stock market tanked. The seriousness of the GOP was clear. We had entered a new era. In 2013, Obama stood firm and obtained a clean increase, but almost a decade later, President Biden found himself scrambling to prevent a default by engaging in the exact kinds of negotiations with the GOP that he had vowed to avoid. Given that Republicans controlled the House and were willing to go through with the threat of default, Biden felt that he didn’t have many options available to him.
Most recently, the nation witnessed Republican legislators attempt to hijack the most basic element of our democracy—elections. The GOP rallied around former President Trump and his rhetoric of election denialism in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. A substantial number of Republican lawmakers stood by the president, even after violent mobs stormed Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021.
Partisan polarization and Republican radicalization have rendered Congress incapable of tackling the nation’s biggest challenges and are threatening our very democracy.
What Was Bad About Bipartisanship
Unfortunately, the alternative that is usually discussed—a nostalgic return to the bipartisanship that characterized much of national politics from the 1910s through the 1970s—isn’t going to happen. Easily ridding American democracy of its intense hyperpolarization is about as realistic as waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney on Christmas Eve. The demographics and institutions that once supported cross-partisan dealmaking are much weaker today, and the forces propelling polarization are deeply entrenched.
Back in the heyday of bipartisanship, the Democratic and Republican parties were each characterized by deep internal divisions. This led to many cross-party alliances. Southern Democrats found kindred spirits in Midwestern Republicans who, like them, wanted to stem the tide of modern liberalism. Northern Democrats and Republicans were often on the same page about issues such as civil rights legislation, health care, and urban reform. With fractured congressional caucuses, the electoral incentives for bipartisanship were strong.
During these decades, moreover, one party, the Democrats, dominated Capitol Hill. Other than a few short spells (1947-49 and 1953-55), Republicans served as a “permanent minority.” In Insecure Majorities, Princeton political scientist Frances Lee has shown how the long-term stability of majority power created strong incentives for bipartisanship. Being out of power gave the GOP reason to work with Southern Democratic committee chairs. Democrats, in turn, were willing to make concessions to the GOP because the odds that compromises would cost them political power were almost nil.
The era of bipartisanship was also facilitated by the nature of institutions. Much of the legislative process took place behind closed doors. Difficult negotiations were easier when legislators were not subject to intense public or partisan scrutiny. Federal sunshine laws didn’t exist, and television cameras were rarely allowed in the chambers. The advantage of having deliberations in smoke-filled rooms was that the public and interest groups had no way of knowing what to mobilize against until deals had already been made. The authority of committee chairs helped them to push through controversial decisions as the rank and file and party leadership were reluctant to challenge them.
The rules of Congress favored fragmented decision-making and weakened centralized party leadership. In the House and Senate, committee chairs were granted considerable autonomy to run their fiefdoms with a free hand. The norm of seniority protected these legislators and allowed them to ignore the demands of large voting blocs in their party. As long as they stayed alive, senior barons knew they would keep their positions. Committee chairs regularly flouted the demands of party leaders, or the majority of their caucuses. As President John F. Kennedy said of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills, “Mills knows that he was chairman of Ways and Means before I got here and that he’ll still be chairman after I’ve gone—and he knows I know it.”
Outside of Congress, journalists strove to maintain professional norms of objectivity, avoiding producing news stories that had a strong partisan bent. Newspaper editors required extensive sourcing and did not release stories until the information was solid. Reporters were discouraged from putting their political positions front and center if they wanted to keep their pieces on the front page. The Fairness Doctrine, a rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949 (and abolished in 1987), required licensed networks to present both sides of an issue. Partisan broadcasting was limited to extreme actors who were willing to violate these laws and norms. Most mainstream newscasters, such as CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite, played things right down the middle. When partisan tensions flared, the Fourth Estate served as a countervailing force and provided a common public square in which both sides could begin their debate. Reporters were also reluctant to publish personal stories about politicians. The well-known reputations of alcoholics and skirt-chasers were kept off the printed page, thus making it harder for opponents to spread stories that aimed at character assassination.
Not everyone thought that all this was good. For younger liberals, the bipartisan conservative coalition was a roadblock to progress. Human rights were literally stuck in House and Senate committees. Mississippi Democratic Senator James Eastland, the racist chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Civil Rights, joked that “for the three years I was chairman, that committee didn’t hold a meeting. I had special pockets in my pants, and for years I carried those bills everywhere I went and every one of them was defeated.” Filibusters were used as an impenetrable wall against civil rights. In one of his earliest speeches on the floor, Senator Hubert Humphrey complained that the rules made it “possible for a determined and organized minority of Senators to keep this body from taking any action at all, by refusing to stop talking and thus preventing the Senate from voting.” In his view, “The coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats being formed before us today has serious consequences for Americans. By refusing to face the need for civil rights, we have given strength to the totalitarian forces within our society from the right and the left.” The endless talk-a-thons, noted the journalist William White, were “the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg.” Pennsylvania Senator Joseph Clark warned that the barons of the conservative coalition were “a self-perpetuating oligarchy, with only mild overtones of plutocracy.”
A massive body of popular books, scholarly articles, and opinion pieces railed against the damage that bipartisanship was inflicting. Williams College political scientist James MacGregor Burns published a book in 1963 about the “deadlock of democracy” that was caused by the existence of four political parties in Washington: the Democratic-Presidential party; the Democratic-Congressional Party, which revolved in part around state’s rights; the Republican-Presidential Party; and the Republican-Congressional Party. The presidential parties, he said, were composed of nationally oriented presidents and congressional leaders who believed in strong executive power and were responsive to majoritarian demands. In contrast, the congressional parties were far more conservative. They were driven by local constituencies, which frequently meant catering to the most politically conservative demands of voters outside the big cities, and they were insistent on checking presidential power. This fractured and disjointed system, Burns argued, “requires coalition government, which is notoriously unable to generate strong and steady political power.” As a result, “we oscillate fecklessly between deadlock and a rush of action.” Rather than accepting the deadlocked multi-party system, Burns called for “the winning party to govern and the losers to oppose.”
Legislative breakthroughs depended on exceptional circumstances, such as a massive economic depression in the 1930s or a civil rights movement and landslide 1964 election. Windows of opportunity for policymaking were rare. In the realm of foreign policy, the bipartisan conservative coalition was perceived to be one of the strongest sources of pressure that pushed President Johnson into the disastrous war in Vietnam. Once troops were in the deadly jungles of Southeast Asia, the coalition remained the legislative base of support for prolonging the quagmire.
The Rise of Responsible Partisanship…
Frustration with bipartisanship drove congressional reform in the 1970s. In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, liberal reformers built on the insights of the APSA report as they moved to strengthen the role of partisanship in Washington. Their goal was to break the back of the conservative coalition by putting into place rules and norms that would support strong and ideologically coherent political parties. As Sam Rosenfeld documented in his powerful history of this movement, The Polarizers, a large group of political actors, such as chairman of the Democratic National Committee Paul Butler and Minnesota Congressman Donald Fraser, devoted themselves to fighting for a world where Democrats and Republicans would fulfill President Franklin Roosevelt’s vision in 1944 of building “two real parties—one liberal and the other conservative.”
Republicans had already paved some of the way in the 1964 presidential election, when activists successfully pushed the nomination of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, a right-wing candidate most party bosses feared. Although they demonstrated how the party machinery could be broken for a candidate who was more ideologically pure—someone who, to borrow the words of Phyllis Schlafly, offered a choice not an echo—the party reverted back to its older ways after the shellacking they suffered when LBJ cruised to a landslide victory over Goldwater.
The goal of congressional reform was to replace the decentralized committee system with a legislative process run by centralized political parties whose leaders would be subject to the approval and continued support of the rank and file. This reform coalition worked with organizations such as Common Cause and Congress Watch that had formed in the 1970s. Common Cause branded itself a “citizen’s lobby” seeking to “revitalize politics and government” by tackling the ways that incumbents had maintained power by “weaving a tough web of custom, rules, institutional structure and process.” The reform coalition mounted pressure on elected officials and ensured that these issues received attention in the press.
One of the most dramatic moments took place when House Democrats gathered after the 1974 midterm election to pick the committee chairmen. Following those elections—which brought to Washington a generation of legislators who were called the “Watergate Babies” because of their determination to fix the broken ways of the capital—a major showdown demonstrated that the era of committee dominance was coming to an end. Normally, the House Democratic Caucus met before a new congressional session started to approve the appointment of committee chairmen. The selections were handled by the House Ways and Means Committee, which served as the Committee on Committees. Seniority meant that the leader of each panel was the person who had held his seat longest, which frequently meant the Southern Democrats whose safe seats kept them in office.
But 1975 was different. The Watergate Babies, and older incumbents who had already been fighting for reform, weren’t into making pro forma decisions. They voted to unseat three of the biggest chairmen in the House—Wright Patman from the Banking and Currency Committee, W.R. Poage of the Agriculture Committee, and Edward Hébert of the Armed Services Committee. (Patman and Poage were Texans; Hébert hailed from Louisiana.) “From now on, the sword of Damocles will be hanging over every chairman,” noted Wisconsin’s Henry Reuss, whom the younger Democrats picked to replace Patman.
In taking these dramatic steps, Democrats responded to one of the chief complaints from APSA in 1950: “[I]t is not playing the game fairly for party members who oppose the commitments in their party’s platform to rely on seniority to carry them into committee chairmanships. Party leaders have compelling reason to prevent such a member from becoming chairman—and they are entirely free so to exert their influence.”
Reforms also consisted of rules changes enacted before and after the 1974 midterm elections that severely undercut committee power. As Time magazine noted in 1975, “a veritable spirit of revolution convulsed the House, and some of the most venerable legislative procedures were even under assault in the Senate.” The pulses of reform centralized and decentralized. The overall objective, sometimes seemingly contradictory, was to empower party leaders to make decisions and drive bold agendas while keeping them accountable to the rank and file. The “Subcommittee Bill of Rights” in 1973 diffused power away from committee chairmen while ensuring that subcommittee chairs would be subject to the approval of the entire caucus. The Budget Reform Act of 1974 created a centralized process for making congressional spending decisions that offered clearer paths for party leaders to exert their control. The Steering and Policy Committee, which included the Speaker of the House and Majority Leader, took over from Ways and Means the authority to make committee assignments. The Speaker of the House gained the power to nominate who would serve on the powerful Rules Committee, the panel that determined the schedule and rules under which legislation would be considered. Sunshine rules opened committee proceedings to public scrutiny, and in 1977 television cameras were allowed to cover House floor proceedings. Praising the “marriage of the medium and our open debate” in the first speech on air two years later, Tennessee Representative Al Gore, whose father had served in the upper house years before, would go on to become a leading proponent for bringing cameras to the Senate in 1986.
Ethics rules were strengthened in the House and Senate as a means of keeping every legislator accountable, regardless of how much power they held.. Limitations were imposed on what a politician could earn outside the job of politics. Strict conflict-of-interest rules aimed to limit corruption, as did disclosure laws—strengthened by the 1974 campaign finance reforms and administered by the newly created Federal Election Commission—that made it easier for voters to understand who gave money to whom.
In the Senate, reformers made it easier to end a filibuster by lowering the threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths of the chamber (67 to 60). Senate Democrats assigned the Democratic Steering Committee the power to make committee assignments. Over time, the development of leadership political action committees served as an important mechanism for party leaders to keep members in line where keeping control of the floor was, as people joked, a bit like herding cats.
The reforms had created a different kind of political world, one where power rested with party leaders who were bound by accountability rules and subject to being deposed by the rank and file in their caucus. The reforms achieved a delicate balance between maintaining strong centralized leadership and empowering average members.
During the decades that followed, demographic changes and transformed institutions worked in tandem with the reforms. The movement of Southern Democratic voters into the Republican Party and the disappearance of Northeastern Republicans likewise gutted the appeal of bipartisanship. Voters sorted along party lines, leaving behind fewer districts and states where the center held.
What reformers had not emphasized in their discussions of responsible partisanship back in 1950 was the responsibility of politicians to respect institutional norms of governance even when pursuing partisan power. What made the partisanship that started to take shape in the 1970s “responsible” was not only the reforms’ effectiveness but, in retrospect, the fact that most elected officials still accepted guardrails when deciding what was legitimate and what kinds of actions went beyond acceptable boundaries. Although most of these constraints were not formalized, most House members and senators had an instinctive respect for norms of decorum that guided legislators as to what they were willing to say about one another on the floor. Personal relations between members of different parties were valued. It was true that legislators spent more time than today together in Washington, schmoozing and socializing at Georgetown dinner parties, congressional gyms, and the saloons that dotted Capitol Hill.
There was an understanding among most Democrats and Republicans that governance mattered, as did the health of democratic institutions. Anything didn’t go. The renegades of earlier eras, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, could certainly wreak destruction but were ultimately pushed aside. When special counsel to the U.S. Army Joseph Welch confronted McCarthy by asking, “Have you no sense of decency?” there were enough senators in the room who knew who was right and who was wrong. Partisanship was one of the goals, but not the only goal, dictating legislative behavior.
Even as the parties fought hammer and tongs on issues such as welfare or supply-side tax cuts, routine legislative procedures were not considered to be weapons. Shutting down the federal government to achieve policy goals, for example, was not something that anyone imagined to be a legitimate tactic.
As long as politicians continued to respect the competing demands on a legislator—governing, protecting democratic norms, and pursuing partisan power—the last factor would not overwhelm the others. This mentality created a political playing field where Democrats and Republicans could fight over policy differences and obtain power without going so far as to undermine the ability of Congress to work.
This era came to an end in the 1990s.
…And of Irresponsible Partisanship
Sometimes scholars have mistakenly drawn a straight line between the congressional reforms of the 1970s and the speakership of Newt Gingrich in 1995, when the leader of the new Republican majority took major steps to further centralize leadership in his office. As speaker, Gingrich ignored seniority when making committee appointments. Directing decisions from his office, Gingrich put party loyalty above everything else.
But not all partisanship is equal. The nature of partisanship had dramatically changed by the time that Gingrich took on the speaker job, in large part as a result of transformations that he himself helped to legitimate in the intervening decade. The reforms of the 1970s had centralized power in the party leadership and privileged a more aggressive assertion of authority from the top. But Gingrich and his cohort capitalized on these transformations, moving far beyond what the reformers had ever intended, abandoning notions of responsibility, and turning procedures that were meant to enhance the capacity of politicians to govern such as sunshine reform—brought to the public via C-SPAN—into brutal tools of partisan combat. As responsible partisanship gave way to smashmouth partisanship, a new Washington was born.
During the 1980s, Gingrich successfully elevated a vision of partisanship within the GOP that stripped away the constraints that guided his successors. Gingrich railed against older Republicans like House Minority Leader Robert Michel for being too concerned about respecting norms of civility and decorum, and for not being fierce enough in terms of what they were willing to do to bring down the Democrats. When it came to language, for instance, Gingrich dismissed the idea that some things couldn’t or shouldn’t be uttered on the floor of the chamber. “You don’t get on TV with cars that get home safely,” he quipped. Gingrich released a memo to Republican candidates in 1990 urging them to deploy toxic language against Democrats, such as calling them “traitors,” so that they would become unelectable in the minds of more voters. If Republicans wanted to control congressional power, Gingrich argued, they needed to stop holding back for fear that they would somehow damage Congress as an institution and render policy-making impossible. Republicans now decided to prioritize partisanship above the protection of democratic institutions and the needs of governance rather than balancing all three. Gingrich weaponized the ethics rules of the post-Watergate period, as he demonstrated by bringing Speaker Jim Wright down from power in 1989. Speaking of refusing to raise the federal debt ceiling, Gingrich made it clear that he wasn’t thinking about symbolism: “We want to force a crisis.”
Seduced by his promise of making the GOP the dominant party, more and more senior Republicans opened the doors to Gingrich and his like-minded conservatives in the Conservative Opportunity Society, culminating in the Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994. Some of Gingrich’s allies would ascend into leadership positions while others, as University of Texas professor Sean Theriault has argued, moved into the upper chamber and became “Gingrich’s Senators,” spreading his methods to the body of government that once liked to think of itself as above all that.
So, when Speaker Gingrich strengthened partisanship on Capitol Hill, it was a different kind of partisanship than that envisioned by reformers in the 1970s or the writers of the 1950 APSA report. This radicalized vision of partisanship, one where anything goes, is what drove the dynamic that social scientists call “asymmetric polarization,” whereby the Republicans moved much further to the right in terms of policy and toward radical conceptions of legitimate partisan warfare than Democrats did to the left. While Democrats continued to be led by members who still respected the value of centrism and who were committed to the centrality of governance, Republicans threw out self-discipline. It wasn’t much of a surprise that in the 2002 midterms, some Republican candidates used references to the traumatic terrorist attacks of 9/11 to question the patriotism of their opponents, including decorated Vietnam veteran Senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee as a result of his war injuries. Cleland’s opponent Saxby Chambliss ran a television spot showing the senator’s face right after images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. When the retiring Tom DeLay told colleagues, “You show me a nation without partisanship, and I’ll show you a tyranny,” his understanding of partisanship was much different than what APSA mapped out in 1950. And Gingrich’s generation was eventually outdone by the Tea Party Republicans, who were then superseded by the Trumpian GOP after 2018. Each generation of Republicans was more extreme than the last.
Besides the relevant changes within the Republican Party, major institutions evolved in ways that amplified partisan division with greater and greater intensity. The news media in the era of cable television, the internet, and social media generated massive commercial incentives to promote biased, partisan journalism that privileged conflict and scandal. Increasingly sophisticated computerized methods of gerrymandering produced House districts with ideologically homogeneous electorates who didn’t tolerate representatives straying from the party line. Single-issue advocacy groups in Washington would only allocate funds to candidates who were loyal on core positions.
As a result of all of these changes, the promise of responsible partisanship faded and the nation was left with destructive toxicity.
Can Responsible Partisanship Rise Again?
Reestablishing responsible partisanship, the type that existed for a brief spell in the 1970s, still offers the best and most realistic path forward. From the perspective of 2023, responsible partisanship would entail ideologically coherent parties that respond to and act on coherent policy agendas—as reformers have promoted since the 1950s report—combined with a respect for institutional norms and guardrails that enable governance and protect the sanctity of our democratic institutions.
As with the 1970s reforms, rules changes will be important. The House and Senate will need to make procedural changes that remove weapons used by extremists and create stronger incentives to pull back on the worst behavior. For instance, one important reform would be to abolish the debt ceiling and thereby take away the option for parties to make threats on this front. Beyond that, both Democrats and Republicans have expressed support for a return to “regular order,” which would reestablish a process that relies on committee hearings, markups, and floor amendments, and would avoid fast-track procedures that bypass committees and limit members’ input. On this issue there is even a surprising amount of agreement between the renegades of the GOP and the Democratic “Squad.” When GOP Representative Kevin McCarthy faced hardline bargaining from his own party as he sought to become speaker in January, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez admitted that some of his Republican critics’ ideas made sense: “I’m not gonna lie, some of the points that are made—I mean a lot of them are bad, most of them are bad—but some of them, there is actually some common ground on. Like for example, democratizing the rules of the House and kind of breaking up that concentration of power that is so focused in a handful of leaders in both parties.”
Reforms should eliminate the filibuster or drastically reduce the number of senators needed to achieve cloture. In recent decades, the filibuster has supported partisanship by allowing one party to prevent consideration of any bill that does not command 60 votes. By turning the Senate into a super-majority institution, the filibuster has made it extraordinarily difficult to move forward on all sorts of essential bills. Many issues are simply kept off the agenda.
Norm changes will also be important. If congressional party leaders and voters encouraged their elected officials to focus more on governance and to be conscientious about the functionality of democratic institutions, partisanship would be disciplined. This would mean Republicans deciding in the aftermath of the Trump era to avoid giving especially divisive representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan heightened roles. Republicans in Congress might look to some of the successful red-state governors who often avoid the ugly theatrics of their national colleagues while pursuing policy objectives.
Along with changing how Congress operates internally, we need to work to reduce the external forces promoting extreme partisan polarization that continually create disincentives for legislators to pull back from the brink. States must continue moving forward with redistricting reform, experimenting with new ways to craft electoral districts, such as through nonpartisan committees, with the goal of breaking up some of the solid-color electorates that pressure members into constantly towing the party line for fear of being primaried. Others have suggested that ranked-choice voting can offer an even better solution to tamp down on partisanship. Coupled with such reforms could be changes to campaign finance that diminish the muscle of the single-issue interest groups and leadership political action committees that make it extremely risky for any legislator to challenge the party line.
News organizations, moreover, must work to restore some of the practices that informed the era of objective journalism, when trust in the media was much higher and the budgets of networks and newspapers were sounder. Partisan journalism, which privileges the rapid dissemination of stories and where the lines separating opinion from reporting are fuzzy at best, has played into the worst tendencies of the nation’s political dynamics. The problems are most acute in the conservative media ecosystem, where television networks like Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and social media outlets facilitate and intensify polarization. Yet mainstream news organizations have too often been enticed by sensational, biased reporting as well, which erodes broad trust in the information that they provide. Besides contemplating how a new version of the Fairness Doctrine, tailored to the modern technological age, might help reestablish standards, there is an urgent need to support nonprofit enterprises that fund editorially rigorous reporting that does not have a political edge. Within all newsrooms, there needs to be much more consideration about how to insist on giving stronger direction to reporters and implementing tighter controls before information reaches the public.
It is evident that most of these changes won’t happen anytime soon. The good news is that other periods of reform in American politics, such as the 1970s or the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century, took decades to come to fruition, after which change came with comparative speed. Reform is a marathon, not a sprint. The process begins with an incubation period, as the political scientist Nelson Polsby once called the earliest stages of policymaking, as reform-oriented thinkers and politicians must devote time to discussing, debating, and refining proposals for reform. The next stage requires politicians sympathetic to improving our democracy—as well as non-political actors within institutions such as the newsroom—to begin floating concrete proposals and generating debate. Reforms can be refined and adjusted over time. When another window of opportunity for reform opens because of scandal or crisis, the groundwork for moving forward with programmatic change will be set so as to maximize the odds of success.
Today’s partisanship doesn’t work. Yesterday’s bipartisanship is gone and not necessarily desired. Responsible partisanship would be the game changer. The model of political competition that was envisioned 73 years ago might be the best bet for moving us off our current destructive path.