With the midterms over, politicians and pundits are asking what issues the new political bedfellows must address to move the country in a positive direction. But if we want progress from politicians on the big issues that affect us all, there is something more important than identifying the right set of issues to build into an agenda. It is to learn to love, or at least tolerate, your opponents.
In election campaigns we learn about the priorities and character of candidates for office. This is an important aspect of how elections help us choose better leaders. But elections also give us a chance to remove officeholders who have not delivered improvements on issues we care about. And that gives them an incentive to find those improvements.
It goes without saying that if an officeholder is removed, he or she must be replaced by someone else — a challenger. But here we reach a problem. What if that challenger represents an identity and a worldview so anathema that a voter can’t bring herself to choose him, even when the incumbent performs poorly? What if the incumbent is so tainted by the whiff of repugnant supporters that a voter cannot bring himself to vote for reelection, even if performance is good? The answer is that politicians have less incentive to perform well.
There is evidence that this is happening. One of the truisms of American politics is that in presidential elections, the incumbent’s party does better when the economy does better. This makes a lot of sense — it gives presidents and their parties strong incentives to deliver the best economy they can. The question is, how much does it matter? Recent research by Berkeley doctoral student Sean Freeder shows that, in recent years, the economy has less effect on presidential voting than it used to.
It is not a coincidence that economic voting is falling as party polarization is rising. When one party’s “good society” is the other’s dystopian nightmare, a voter who leans even moderately in one direction will have a hard time supporting the party that is worlds apart in the other — no matter how poorly their side’s candidate performs on the issues.
The problem is not that politicians are lazy or are liars. They are generally neither. The problem is that delivering improvements on knotty problems is hard. It does not happen by accident. For that reason, it helps to be able to use reelection as an incentive. We may wish to elect a visionary leader with expertise and integrity to solve our problems — a philosopher-king or -queen who will calm our divisions by showing the right way forward, and who virtuously delivers the solutions we need. But until we find one — and so far, supply seems sparse — incentives are helpful too.
So if voters are to get the best that politicians have to offer, we need a credible threat to replace them. That will not happen if the Democratic and Republican Party bases are so incomprehensible to each other, if not outright hostile, that voters from one can never select a candidate from the other — regardless of performance. Analysts who proclaim a purple America point out that extent of this hostility is easily overstated. Still, trends on this front are concerning. The midterm polls had not all closed before the New York Times declared that the results show the nation’s divisions are deepening. And Wednesday morning had not dawned before USA Today announced that “red states” got redder, while “blue states” got bluer.
How do we fix this problem? It surely would be helpful if partisan camps did not attribute every proposal from the other side to malice or stupidity. Of course, in taking steps toward mutual understanding, each side of a conflict prefers the other side go first. More concretely, social science has recently renewed its attention to reducing prejudice. The best research reveals that contact across social divisions can create lasting empathy.
Whatever the solution, it will not come from politics itself. If politicians do not have to deliver on the big but challenging issues that affect us all, they won’t. Paradoxically, to make progress on the big issues, we need social interchange that makes us mutually intelligible, and doesn’t focus on any issues at all. When that is in place, a vote based on performance, rather than identity, becomes conceivable. It won’t make hard problems easy, but it will help ensure that our leaders do as well as possible.
Sean Gailmard is a professor in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His research includes political accountability in American politics and the historical development of the executive branch. He is the author of “Learning While Governing: Expertise and Accountability in the Executive Branch” (2012, University of Chicago Press, with John W. Patty). Follow him on Twitter @SeanGailmard.