Washington warned of extreme partisanship — here’s how we can bridge the divide.
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George Washington departed from his second term as president with a cautionary final address on the dangers of faction in seeking national unity. He warned us that extreme partisanship would not only lead to revenge-seeking behavior between the parties, but dangerous authoritarian tendencies:

“The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

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Even more, Washington suggests that the mischiefs of partisanship will open “the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”

 

To many, these passages sound prophetic in today’s divisive political landscape. As a nation, we must heed these warnings and take action on the root issue that Washington identified.

Partisanship in recent years has reached its most extreme levels on record, inhibiting our willingness to collaborate with, listen to, and even respect each other in disagreement. Of course, America always has and always will have vigorous disagreements. That’s why Washington, Madison and the other Framers intentionally designed a governing system that required consensus-building for an increasingly large and diverse country — it’s one of the great achievements in human history.

However, that system is under threat today. Numerous polarizing forces, worsened by fear-based campaign fundraising and media echo chambers, have served as a barrier to what we elected our leaders to do: govern. That makes our society vulnerable to the exact dangers predicted in Washington’s Farewell Address.

So what can we do to combat extreme partisanship? Here are three key areas that will help bridge the divide and bring our country back together:

First, we need to invest in the next generation of leadership. Millennials hold our nation's greatest promise to disrupt partisanship.

From my work with the Millennial Action Project (MAP), which is the largest nonpartisan organization of millennial policymakers in the U.S. I have learned that political bridge-building is like a muscle that needs exercise.

The more we flex that muscle early on in legislator’s careers, the more that muscle memory will kick in during future consensus-building efforts around the most difficult issues. The good news is that millennial legislators are entering public service with this ethos in mind.

They focus on issues, not party. In fact, this dynamic is reflected in the broader millennial electorate. A plurality of us now identify as independent, and polling data shows that our views do not fit neatly into either partisan box.

Supporting the next generation of leadership has always been a smart investment throughout the story of American invention and reinvention. Consider the Founding Fathers, a majority of whom were under the age of 40 in 1776, including Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton.

Dr. King was also millennial-aged when he delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech and led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These leaders were most creative and visionary in their 20s and 30s. Our country was lucky to benefit from their leadership at a young age.

Second, we need to push our political and media institutions to promote constructive conversation and collaboration. Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, and elected officials must have access to all the best solutions to help our country.

That's what our founders intended, and that’s why MAP created the Future Caucus in Congress and in fifteen state legislatures. These Future Caucuses unify lawmakers under the age of 40 from both parties, who come together to pioneer bipartisan solutions on the sharing economy, environmental stewardship, veterans’ job training, and other issues affecting millennials.

These solutions are not diluted versions of good ideas, nor are they compromises resulting in the least common denominator. Instead, these are cases of young leaders taking a fresh view, identifying the best ideas regardless of party, and securing early buy-in from leaders across the aisle.

The media too must find a way to tell the story of bipartisan consensus-building. Though you are unlikely to hear about issues transcending party politics in the headlines, opportunities for consensus do exist — and amplifying these efforts provides positive reinforcement for legislators who are unifying as opposed to dividing.

Third, we need to remove the worst polarizing incentives from our elections and campaigns. For example, today's campaign finance system rewards partisan grandstanding and disadvantages creative young leaders from entering public office.

Fears and smears raise the most money, while the fundraising enterprise takes valuable time away from governing and building relationships across the aisle. Furthermore, access to the uber-wealthy is essential to win most Congressional campaigns — and in the 2016 election, less than one percent of the U.S. population gave over 70 percent of all campaign contributions. Young leaders without that kind of access are often locked out of the process.

But bipartisan reforms exist. Connecticut’s citizens’ election system resulted in a wave of new, young, and politically diverse legislators running for office — and winning. The voluntary program combines small donor fundraising with public financing so that candidates do not have to rely on big partisan donors and special interest money.

When Democratic leadership proposed suspending the program for 2016, the bipartisan group of young legislators successfully united to keep the reforms in place.

Even as millennial legislators prove themselves increasingly capable of leading as the “adults in the room,” Congress and state legislatures remain more polarized than ever.

That’s why we must take action to change the current electoral incentives, develop spaces for cooperation, and in particular, invest in the next generation of bridge-builders. Because of these young leaders, I remain optimistic about building a future where we can transcend the partisanship that George Washington warned us of.

Steven Olikara is the founder and president of the Millennial Action Project, aimed at activating millennial policymakers to bridge the partisan divide in Congress and state legislatures. Follow Olikara on Twitter: @StevenOlikara.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.