Throughout US history, Congress has rarely been perfectly united. But over the last several years, divisiveness and distrust among elected officials and even citizens have increased to dangerous levels. Congress seemingly can’t agree on any issue, even ones that are popular among a majority of voters, including climate change, safer cities, universal background checks for gun purchases, debt reduction, and decreased health care costs. How did we get so divided, and how do we come back from the brink? That’s the subject of a recent report, “Why is Governing No Longer Good Politics? Reflections from a Thousand Years of Public Service,” by FixUS, an initiative of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Compiling interviews with public figures — Democrat, Republican, and independent — the report finds that many agree on the major issues from which our political problems stem. One is low voter turnout, especially in primary elections. When turnout is low, it increases the power of the most polarized voters, who are more likely to vote in primaries. This allows a small number of people to have a disproportionate impact on which candidate runs in the general election.
One reason voter turnout in primaries is low is the lack of attention many primary races garner. What may help draw more attention to primaries would be for each region of the country to move all their primaries to the same day. Another option would be for each state to hold its primary on the first Tuesday of the month, mimicking the presidential election. Instead of having primaries scattered over the course of several months on different days, states should coordinate with each other to develop ideas for consolidating primary dates or other changes that would draw increased attention to primaries.
Another option would be to shift from closed primaries toward semi-open or fully open primaries. Closed primaries shut out independent and unaffiliated voters, preventing them from participating in arguably the most important stage of the election process. Semi-open and open primaries would rectify this problem. Both options allow independent and unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries, and fully open primaries would allow members of any party to vote for any candidate. No matter what reforms states prefer, they should pursue new approaches to encourage more voter participation.
Boosting turnout forces candidates to appeal to a much broader swath of their constituents rather than catering to the more extreme voices within their base. If low levels of turnout continue, it leaves the public with a choice between two polarized candidates who feel obliged to pander to their base instead of to the majority of their constituents. The end result is an elected official who doesn’t feel the need to compromise once they get into office.
Compromise isn’t just important from a policy standpoint — it reminds us that we are all working together toward a common goal of effective governing. As compromise becomes more rare, more Americans are starting not just to disagree with their political opponents but also to view them as anti-American.
Furthermore, Congress has yet to agree to regulate the role of money in our politics. Citing the First Amendment, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allowed wealthy donors and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of cash to fund elections. While the First Amendment enshrines the right to freedom of speech, the problem of untold sums of money pouring into elections from unknown sources needs to be addressed. The source of every single dollar donated to any entity that is used to influence voters should be publicly reported. As Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
Third, we, the American people, have a problem. What passes for news online and on television is filled with misinformation, vulgarity, divisiveness, and outright hatred and is pumped into our brains daily by media personalities masquerading as journalists. The worst part is that audiences who tune in are the ones creating the demand for it. Our media ecosystem is flawed, but the solution won’t come from legislation, nor should it — our First Amendment ensures this. So what’s the solution?
Dysfunction in media outlets and politics will persist until Americans demand that our leaders be better. If we want our politicians and even talk show hosts to live up to a higher standard, we must be the ones to hold them to it. This starts at a grass-roots level. By committing to being good neighbors and citizens, to seeing our political opponents not as enemies but as fellow Americans who merely disagree on policy, we can force politicians and media outlets to change their messaging. Only by holding our side of the aisle to the same standards we demand of the other, having civil conversations with those we disagree with, and valuing the needs of our communities over those of our political party can we incentivize our leaders to do the same.
We have an obligation to change the channel and hear all fact-based sides of an issue. Being informed consumers of well-sourced news is crucial; otherwise, we risk slipping into our own echo chambers, refusing to understand how our fellow Americans see the world. Breaking out of our echo chambers is hard, time-consuming work. But our democracy depends on it.
America has a long and proud history of working together to solve challenging problems — even when the solutions are far from easy.
Michael Capuano is a former Democratic US representative from Massachusetts. Jim Douglas is a former Republican governor of Vermont.