(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

In the 1994 midterm, the Republican Party won majorities in both houses of Congress with larger margins than most electoral models predicted.  The incoming majority had formed a united campaign front with its Contract with America, staking out clear stances from its Democratic opponents.  Yet, by the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term, one that included not only an impeachment but also an ahistorical gain in seats for his party during the subsequent midterm, the White House and Congress had amassed many policy accomplishments.  Divided government was not dysfunctional.

As of today, election officials have certified most of the 2020 ballots and, at least at the federal level, all but two run-off elections concluded.  Pending the outcome of those latter races, the United States may again face a measure of divided government.  Is that situation desirable? Explainable? Even though much of the deeper analysis of voting awaits the more detailed academic studies that can examine a whole host of factors that simpler horserace polls cannot, these results are not necessarily puzzling when taking in a longer-term context.  As parties and their elected officials have polarized in the last several decades, especially in comparison to the landscape of public opinion, divided government not only balance for the public, but also an indication that business as usual does not serve the larger American public.

Divided government is not necessarily a surprising outcome, either in current or past times.  In terms of party identification (PID), the public has tended to reflect more of a bell curve over the last several decades, with just small spikes favoring either major party.  In addition, these totals include those who respond as weak partisans; researchers Paul Hernnson and James Curry note that these individuals who sometimes turn out in lower numbers or may be more likely to defect to the opposing party when election contexts are less favorable.  As parties have polarized, voters other than strong partisans do not find these groups to be very representative of their beliefs (Table 1).  In fact, results in a November 2020 survey by Harvard/Harris reveals that a majority of voters want bipartisan control of Congress (30).  Thus, ticket-splitting may be motivated by a desire to curb the excesses of either party.

Despite the attention to congressional gridlock in recent years, though not without bipartisan successes such as the First Step Act, divided government has necessarily not been synonymous with unproductive outcomes.   Divided government has occurred regularly for a number of decades.  Congressional expert David Mayhew has found that, for a good portion of that time, divided government did not correlate with less productive policymaking.  Officials were able to rise above partisanship to the point that they could collaborate on key outcomes, but those outcomes were also due to the overlap across more moderate elements of the parties.

As parties have polarized over the last couple of decades, their electoral fortunes have been short-term in nature.  Since 1992, unified government has been the exception, rather than the rule, with each side holding that position for only 1 to 2 election cycles (Table 4).  As long as officials promote policies that relate to their bases, they risk the inability to grow sufficient support in the public in order to sustain power and make consistent policy.  The winning parties have tended to incorrectly view their wins as a mandate, ceding more independent supporters to the opposing party in subsequent elections.   Moreover, policy purists, rather than pragmatists, have engaged in significant overreach by promoting policies that do not have widespread support, which seems to perpetuate the political tumult come election time.

However, this cycle is not inevitable, if political leaders exercise courage in representing the larger American public.   Recent research by Harvard’s Carr Center has shown a number of areas of common ground among voters – with strong bipartisan support topping 90% for rights relating to personal data, voting, racial equality and affordable health care (Takeaway 2).  Students of public policy know well that agreement on policy goals do not automatically produce results on the methods by which they might be achieved.  But, with such overwhelming desire on the part of the public to address these issues, and the varieties of approaches, built on the results of which ones may or may not work well, a compromise that advances the interests of the American people is possible.

Critical to that compromise is the willingness of officials to examine viable solutions and to engage in honest dialogue.  To do so, members of Congress need to return to some fundamental values, chief among which is empathy.  Rather than seeing members of opposing parties as enemies, recognizing their humanity requires our ability to understand how individuals’ experiences shape their values.  As noted by actor Alan Alda, who has spent many years working in the field of communication, active listening has the potential to reframe our views.  In turn, we have the opportunity to develop empathy for others who think differently than we do.  In light of current political alignments within the public, empathy and collaboration are not only ethical necessities but practical ones.

If we wish to solve collective problems by implementing policies that can have longer-term – and likely more effective – outcomes, partisans need to reframe their approaches.  Democracy typically organizes around a principle of majority rule; in some cases, procedures – including some of those addressed in the Constitution – even require supermajorities.  Neither party has been able to generate a clear, convincing and, most importantly, sustainable majority.  Political scientist Robert Putnam offers insights on returning to the common good, based on examples from the past in his new book, co-authored with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. More efforts, such as those of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, have the opportunity to chart a different course.  The onus is on current leaders to chart a path that tackles commonly agreed-upon goals in ways that harness the strengths of competing perspectives.   In doing so, they will find themselves much more likely to generate support from the public, raising from approvals in the teens and 20s, and securing a broader and more stable set of bases.   In becoming more representative, they also stand the chance to adopt more effective policies that majorities of Americans can respect.


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