This impasse bodes poorly for American democracy
© Greg Nash

American democracy has always been a complex and complicated institution. Rarely has every American community seen the nation’s challenges through a single prism. Even more rarely have we all agreed on any given solution. But through the decades, and with rare exceptions, those representing us in Washington have found ways to work things out. They’ve collaborated and compromised, bantered and bartered. And it’s through those negotiations that the flame of American democracy has survived.

As illustrated by the current impasse over border security and immigration, that light has begun to flicker. Deep down, I have no doubt that Democrats and Republicans both want what’s best for America. It’s just that they’ve lost their ability to negotiate with one another. They’re so entrenched in their various positions—so convinced that their worldview should transcend everyone else’s—that they’re unwilling to meet anyone halfway. The result is a democratic unraveling.

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Unless our leaders in Washington can rediscover how to engage counterparts who have a different point of view, the government will prove repeatedly incapable of handling its own business—let alone addressing our long-term problems.

 

It’s time we reviewed how compromise is supposed to work. Governing, after all, isn’t designed to be a game of chicken. Nor is it supposed to be a system where winners take all. Rather, America’s constitutional democracy was designed to require that legislators on both sides of every issue take the other side’s concerns seriously, consider what they can accommodate (and what they cannot), and then work out something that is better than the status quo. But that tradition has broken down. That’s what’s not normal.

Democracy simply doesn’t work if both sides view the other side’s demands as unreasonable simply because the other side has made them. No friendship could ever work that way. Nor could any marriage. And that’s what the left and right are in today: A dysfunctional marriage where each side’s obsession with what they want—and their reflexive rejection of the other side’s desires—has come to undermine everyone’s shared commitment to the greater good.

The debate over immigration and border security is a case in point. Deep down, neither side really objects to what the other side proposes. Support or oppose the “wall,” no one disputes that America should have secure borders. Indeed, whether or not you prefer to welcome more immigrants or send back those who are already here, nearly everyone believes that explicitly unwelcome foreigners should be repelled from the homeland. And while leaders can disagree about specifically how you accomplish that goal, no one thinks we ought to leave a back-door border entrance open and unguarded.

At the same time, no matter how you feel about the immigration issue more generally, very few Americans believe that the Dreamers—individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children and have since abided by the law—should be sent home. Even President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE has asked on Twitter: "Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?" So the issue isn’t whether these particular immigrants should remain in the United States—it’s whether letting them stay might open the door to others.

In other words, neither side disagrees fundamentally with what the opposing party wants. These disagreements are eminently resolvable. But each side’s preeminent demand prompts the other side to draw a red line. The roots of the current impasse aren’t substantive—they’re political.

Now, in any healthy relationship, this is the easiest sort of problem to solve. Why? Because, in the absence of any truly substantive disagreement, both sides can get the bulk of what they want without having to give too much to the other side. The left could save the Dreamers because they’re not really opposed to security at the border. The right could have a more impenetrable barrier at the border because they don’t really want to deport hardworking Americans.

But the relationship between the Democrats and Republicans isn’t healthy—and that’s the problem. Both sides care more about ensuring that the other side not get what it wants than they do about getting what they care about most. So if they can’t solve this sort of problem—namely one in which their substantive disagreements are minimal—how can we ever expect them to tackle challenges where they truly disagree?

Inside Congress, a growing faction recognizes this very problem. The Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 48 House members, is working to put substance above politics—and they’re having an impact. The hard truth is that if something doesn’t change to improve the relationship between the two parties, the fragile institutions of American democracy may become too brittle to repair. The current dynamic cannot fester forever.

Tom Davis is co-founder of the political organization No Labels. He represented Virginia's 11th congressional district from 1995-2008 and served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.