The increasing rhetoric about polarization in US politics is misleading at best and prevents Americans finding common cause in unexpected places. During both the current and previous presidential primaries, the media has obsessively focused on the performative aspects of the campaigns. This has lead to constant discussions about the financial states of the various campaigns and who is most likely to drop out. Such a narrow focus, which privileges large dollar donations, ironically often leads to incorrect predictions as to frontrunners, as we saw with Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign. Similarly, the media tends to maximize coverage of inevitable personality clashes: for example, Trump’s series of nicknames for his Republican rivals, from Low Energy Jeb to Lying Ted, gained traction largely because they were echoed by TV stations. However, there was a focus on personalities even before Trump entered the race. Many outlets highlighted the drama of Marco Rubio running against his erstwhile mentor Jeb Bush. This kind of focus ignores real political differences. When policy and ideology are covered, as they were in the case of the Democratic party’s divide over Medicare for All, they are examined through the prism of intra-party divisions between moderates and progressives. Media emphasis on conflict and division, therefore, conceals the common ground that exists in the United States.
The Potential for Bipartisanship
Although polarization is a real phenomenon, both within and between the two parties, an excessive emphasis on it conceals the potential for policy overlap between the two parties, in areas such as infrastructure and criminal justice reform. There is also overlap in areas typically overlooked during presidential campaigns, which either appeal to a shared principle—something increasingly rare—or, perhaps counterintuitively, hold shared appeal for factions within the two parties. The focus on polarization has therefore obscured one of the biggest advantages of the increasingly long primary season: the publication of extensive policy proposals by multiple candidates, on all areas of American politics.
Democratic and Republican partisans have been largely opposed to the principle of bipartisanship in recent years. Many of them have viewed bipartisanship as a polite euphemism for compromising core beliefs and selling out the party faithful. For instance, many Republicans who agreed to comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 were painted as betrayers of the Tea Party that had helped many of them win their seats in the first place. Those Democrats who undermined the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms were considered by some to have acted against the interests of the party’s increasingly progressive base. These critiques of bipartisanship as a cynical compromise of principles are logical, understandable and not unfounded. Bipartisan policies should not focus on compromise, but on building on shared principles or appealing to divergent principles that can be met by a single policy that would result in legislation that could be passed by Congress. Both kinds of policies exist. We can find them buried in the policy sections of the websites of the primary campaigns of 2016 and 2020, but they have failed to gain the media airtime they deserve—probably because they are unlikely to bring in the high ratings that more volatile aspects of the campaigns often do.
Let’s look at three policies proposed in these two cycles, which have a real chance of garnering bipartisan support.
Andrew Yang 2020
Entrepreneur and Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang has suggested introducing a reverse boot camp for military personnel leaving the service to enter civilian life. This would ensure that all veterans were trained in skills necessary to thrive outside the military, including “grocery shopping and nutrition, cooking and creating and sticking to a personal schedule” and “financial literacy and training.”
Yang’s policy is bipartisan in the truest sense because it appeals to a shared desire among Republicans and Democrats to aid veterans in adapting to civilian life. Both sides believe that veterans are morally deserving of such opportunities, due to their immense sacrifice, and that the policy would have pragmatic benefits because veterans face unique struggles in re-entering civilian life and this causes enormous problems for federal and state governments. The policy is a prime example of easy bipartisanship, based on common values and concerns.
Ted Cruz 2016
Texas senator and 2016 Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz proposed to revive President Reagan’s 1982 Grace Commission. Chaired by Democratic businessman Joseph Peter Grace, the commission was tasked with investigating and reporting on waste and inefficiency in the US government and making recommendations on how to save the US government money.
Although the framing of this policy—that government spending is highly wasteful—appeals more to conservatives, Cruz nodded to the potentially bipartisan nature of the policy by suggesting that it would save the government money “without raising taxes, weakening defense or harming social welfare.” This concern for “social welfare” might speak to the immense popularity of social welfare programs like Medicare. The desire to cut waste is also supported by Democrats like Barney Frank, who see the Department of Defense, in particular, as a bastion of wasteful spending. Although Cruz made it clear that defense would not be weakened under such a commission, both parties might agree to target only defense spending they saw as explicitly wasteful, such as overspending on basic items. The idea of a new Grace Commission, therefore, especially if it were chaired by a Democrat supporter, could feasibly have gained bipartisan support.
Elizabeth Warren 2020
Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, the progressive Democratic senator from Massachusetts, has come out with a series of economic policies, which she describes as a plan for economic patriotism. One key aspect of Warren’s plan is that, where possible, the US federal government will purchase American goods instead of those of foreign competitors.
The simplicity of this might distract us from its bipartisan appeal. In essence, this plan involves state intervention in the economy to stimulate economic growth—a policy with clear appeal for Democrats. However, Donald Trump has also frequently argued that economic policy should prioritize American jobs and businesses, a strategy Steve Bannon has termed economic nationalism. This policy’s popularity and bipartisan appeal is demonstrated by the fact that it has also been championed by liberal Ohio senator Sherrod Brown. Brown even makes a point of wearing suits made in a factory in his home state. No wonder both men won the swing state of Ohio, despite their radically different stances on most other issues.
It is easy to understand why the narrative of American polarization is so prevalent, given the tough rhetoric used by political opponents and the legislative deadlock in Congress. However, the unpopularity of compromise has blinded many to the common ground between the two parties. Even if previous areas of relative consensus, such as on the importance of free trade, have been undermined, new areas of genuine accord—and the policies that reflect them—would have broad appeal, if they were pushed to the front of the agenda.
Pragmatism need not mean selling out or even moderating one’s principles, merely understanding where the new opportunities for popular policy prescriptions lie. Those who lament the intense vitriol that often characterizes contemporary American politics have too often sought to ameliorate the situation by returning to the same areas of compromise that worked for previous generations. This only aggravates the problem. Concord can, and should, return to American politics—but only if achieved genuinely—not just rhetorically—by bringing people together through common values and affecting change. Partisanship is not necessarily always a negative, but, when it undermines cooperation, it undermines American strength at home and abroad. We should hope that, whilst candidates argue for their partisan preferences, they do not forget to promise a real end to polarization that will satisfy all Americans, politicians and people alike.