Back in March, two young members of Congress from Texas, Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd, became brief Internet celebrities. Unable to fly back to Washington because of a snowstorm, the two hit the road together, tweeting and livestreaming their trip north. They fielded questions along the way on everything from the war on drugs to immigration — and so ended up holding what O’Rourke called “the longest cross-country livestream town hall in the history of the world.”
What sparked people’s interest was a fact that, a generation ago, would have been unremarkable: O’Rourke is a Democrat, and Hurd a Republican. They disagree politically on many things. Yet somehow they managed to share Whataburgers, sing along to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” joke with colleagues of both parties — and wind up signing on to each other’s legislation once they got to D.C.
That this struck a chord with the national press and hundreds of thousands of Facebook viewers shouldn’t come as a surprise. When I talk to people about Congress and Washington in general, I’m impressed by their hunger for bipartisanship. Americans of all stripes believe that the institutions of representative democracy are not working as they should. And they want members of the two parties to work together more.
The litany of forces tilting our politics toward polarization is long and dispiriting. The political extremes, left and right, make up perhaps a third of the American public, but they’re disproportionately active within their parties and help drive polarization. This is amplified by Americans’ increasing preference for associating with people who share their views, and by the army of consultants and politicians who use negative politics to bring out their “base” and sway those in the middle.
The institutions that once sought the middle ground no longer do so. The media has become more impulsive, more aggressive, and far less objective. Strong, sophisticated, well-financed interest groups have learned to play the political game hard and to brook no compromise. Political parties that made it their job to build consensus have set it aside. Political and congressional leaders, far from seeking to build the center, find reward in pursuing conflict and confrontation, demonizing opponents and even members of their own party who show a willingness to compromise.
O’Rourke and Hurd’s joint adventure seemed so unusual in part because all of these trends come together in Congress. It is the sole American institution explicitly designed to air the diverse needs and voices of Americans when policy gets made. Yet these days, it is the place where no one expects this to happen.
As a nation, we are far worse off because of this. At home, we get deadlock, dysfunction, and loss of faith in our political institutions. Abroad, we’re seen as indecisive and incapable. So how do we fix this?
The answer lies in four arenas. First, we need to bolster the middle by expanding the electorate: the more people who vote, the less influence held by ideologically driven activists who are unwilling to compromise.
Second, politicians need to step up — and most especially, the president and the leaders of Congress. They have to remind people that the job of the policy maker is to put the country before politics, and that it is necessary for us to work together to meet our challenges.
Third, Congress needs to fix its practices with an eye toward reversing polarization. It should return to the deliberative order of doing business, and to real conference committees, which would require members to meet, discuss, and compromise with one another. It needs to reduce partisan control of elections, the influence of special interest money, and gerrymandering for partisan advantage, and to strengthen the integrity of the electoral system. I am heartened by several private-sector groups that are determined to push Congress and the president to work together to get things done.
Finally, we as citizens have to convey to politicians that there’s a right and a wrong way to conduct the dialogue of democracy. If we want to keep this country strong, prosperous and free, we need to place a premium on politicians who know how to work together — and with people who don’t agree with them.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.