Lawmakers, to repair our polarized Congress, make DC your home

Lawmakers, to repair our polarized Congress, make DC your home
© Greg Nash

In 1879, a decade after 750,000 Americans lost their lives in a vicious civil war between our Northern and Southern states, the U.S. Congress remained bitterly divided. Astonishingly today, records show that Democrats and Republicans in Congress are even more polarized and obstructionist than they were in 1879. This nihilistic form of partisanship impairs Congresses’ capacity to serve as the great deliberative, problem-solving body that the Framers of our Constitution meant it to be. The causes for the divisions today are many and complex, but a core structural factor can be traced to one fateful decision made over two decades ago.

In 1995, as part of his campaign to secure permanent control of the government by transforming his Republican caucus into a “fundraising Congress”, then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich changed the workweek in Congress from five days to three. The speaker argued that this would allow his Republican colleagues to remain living in their home state and raise more money. It also had the added benefit of keeping the members of his caucus from fraternizing with the other side, thus keeping their focus on winning re-election and keeping their party in power. Even today lawmakers don’t work a full five days in Washington.

Prior to this, most lawmakers had homes in Washington and their families often socialized on weekends. What Gingrich did, wittingly or not, was to remove a basic structure from Washington community life that had served as a civilizing force in our government for over a century: crosscutting ties. These are the bonds that are formed in the locations, memberships and institutions — playgrounds, schools, little league teams, places of worship, places of work, and so on — where families from different political parties grow up together.

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Through these encounters, members of Congress often became more moderate as they and their families befriended members on the other side. Today, few members of Congress live in Washington. Instead they often share an apartment with other members of their party or sleep in their offices. The effect on cross-party relationships has been insidious and toxic.

Now, the fact that a Republican’s six-year-old shares the same crummy T-ball uniform as the child of Democrats is a small matter indeed. But when these experiences are multiplied over the thousands of encounters that people have with their neighbors when living in the same community, something emerges that is bigger than their sum total: relationships. This is the connective tissue that holds our communities and our body politic together and makes them more resilient to hardship.

One of the most important findings from decades of anthropological research on violent versus peaceful communities around the world is the value of cross-cutting ties for connecting members of different groups, building relationships, promoting common interests and mitigating escalation of conflict when it occurs.

In India, for example, multi-ethnic sports teams, labor unions, political parties, and so on have been found to significantly reduce interethnic enmity and violence between Hindus and Muslims cohabitating in the same community. Of course conflicts spark across these differences all the time. But they are much less likely to escalate to the point of open hostilities, violence and dehumanization of the “other” when your soccer team’s goalie and the chairperson of your school board are also others.

In the U.S. Congress, these mixed-party community structures once contributed to a culture where profiles in courage — acts of bravery and integrity enacted by politicians in order to serve the common good rather than merely gain political advantage — were much more common (note the period of relative bi-partisanship in Congress from the 1930s to the 1990s in the figure above). In that atmosphere, legislators came to view their counterparts across the aisle less as villains and more as actors in our joint political drama.

However, when high stakes decisions over scarce resources and political power are made in a context devoid of civil relationships, something else quickly fills the void: enmity. This dynamic has derailed our lawmakers’ ability to meet the needs of the people, resulting in 86 percent of Americans having little trust in Congress.

My plea to our political leaders: Come back! Move your families back to Washington and get back to work on the unprecedented challenges facing our country today. Would this be a panacea for resisting the many virulent forces currently dividing us? No. But it could help us begin to repair and rebuilt a functional democracy one neighbor at a time.  

Peter T. Coleman is a professor at Columbia University and author of “The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts” (2011).