The only way out of this mess
© Getty Images

More than a decade ago, before anyone had heard of the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement, a veteran political reporter took up the challenge of explaining how American politics had changed in the post-War era. Beyond the typical complaints about campaign fundraising, filibusters and gerrymandering, Ron Brownstein wanted to understand why Washington was becoming increasingly polarized.

In The Second Civil War, Brownstein detailed how progressives and conservatives were sorting themselves more exclusively into Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. The impact, he argued, was profound. The parties had evolved from competitive coalitions into warring tribes. The open-mindedness that had spurred Ronald Reagan to work with Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonEx-CIA officer: Prosecution of Russians indicted for DNC hack 'ain't ever going to happen' George W. Bush: I am ‘disturbed’ by the immigration rhetoric Booker seizes on Kavanaugh confirmation fight MORE to work with Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had winnowed away. Compromise was now a dirty word.

ADVERTISEMENT
Nearly 11 years later, the worrisome decline of bipartisanship has only accelerated. Leaders seem reflexively determined to govern by steamrolling the other side. Big policy ideas—immigration, health care, and tax reform among them—are either enacted with support from a single party (to the exclusion of the other) or left for dead. We’ve moved from a system in which both parties strive to serve the whole country to one in which political leaders seem more interested in driving wedges than solving problems. And that’s a huge problem.

In his Farewell Address, President George Washington warned America about the derisive impact of factions. But for most of our history, that concern has been mitigated by the fact that the parties were themselves ideologically diverse. During the periods when Washington was more productive, the Republican Party included Northeastern liberals, and a range of Southern conservatives remained in the Democratic fold. But with the two parties now more ideologically homogenous, President Washington’s warning is more relevant than ever. We need to heed his admonition.

Breathing new life into the spirit of bipartisanship will require success on three separate fronts. First, we need to set a bipartisan agenda. Democrats and Republicans who recognize that better solutions emerge when the parties work hand-in-hand need ways to share ideas. The Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 48 House Democrats and Republicans split evenly between the parties, has done that over the last year. Together, they negotiated ways forward on health care, immigration and infrastructure. Bipartisanship, in other words, has the idea factory required to have a real impact.

Second, we need to ensure that those bipartisan proposals can wind their way successfully through the legislative process. All the hard work the Problem Solvers did to sculpt each compromise was held hostage by the small bands of partisan extremists who manipulate House leaders into bottling up bills they don’t like. The old rules might have worked at a moment when, as Brownstein illustrated, the parties weren’t so thoroughly sorted. But as the nation’s politics change, so must congressional procedure. In the next Congress, we need a “New House, (with) New Rules.”

Finally, we need to address the underlying political reality. Thoughtful ideas and workable congressional rules are both predicated on the nation electing members who share a bipartisan impulse. If everyone willing to reach across the aisle is going to be subject to relentless attacks from the partisan extremes—if Problem Solvers are going to be left to twist in the wind during each primary season—the collaborative approach that’s defined so much of America’s successful history will go down with them.

That’s why the primary election challenge to Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois’ 3rd District, a race that’s getting national attention, is so important. Some Democrats may not agree with everything Lipinski stands for, but he’s a bulwark against the extreme partisanship that’s tearing Washington apart. He’s a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, was a key mover in the debate on health care, and is a proven champion for finding ways that Republicans and Democrats can move the country forward, together. If his challenger wins on the backs of the left wing groups that have flooded into Illinois, members across the country will get the message. Those of us who take a different view need to stand tall against them.

This political season need not end badly. Extremists need not strike further blows against the spirit of collaboration. But if we’re to reverse the trend Ron Brownstein identified more than a decade ago—if we’re going to take heed of President Washington’s warning about factionalism—America needs to come together around leaders like Dan Lipinski. Bipartisanship is the only tangible way out of the morass. I hope you will join me in doing everything you can to support those more intent on finding common ground than crossing swords with the party across the aisle.

Nancy Jacobson is co-founder and CEO of No Labels.