Back in March, two young members of Congress from Texas, Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd, became brief internet celebrities. Unable to fly back to Washington because of a snowstorm, the two hit the road together, tweeting and livestreaming their trip north. They fielded questions along the way – and so ended up holding what O’Rourke called “the longest cross-country livestream town hall in the history of the world.”
What sparked people’s interest was a fact that, a generation ago, would have been unremarkable: O’Rourke is a Democrat, Hurd a Republican. This struck a chord with the national press and hundreds of thousands of Facebook viewers. Americans of all stripes want members of the two parties to work together more.
The litany of forces tilting our politics toward polarization is long and dispiriting. The political extremes are disproportionately active within their parties and help drive polarization. An army of consultants and politicians use negative politics to bring out their “base.” The media has become more impulsive, more aggressive, and far less objective. Sophisticated interest groups play political hardball and leave no room for compromise. Political parties that made it their job to build consensus have set it aside. Political and congressional leaders find reward in pursuing conflict and confrontation.
As a nation, we are worse off because of this. At home, we get deadlock, dysfunction, and declining faith in our political institutions. Abroad, we’re seen as indecisive and incapable. So how do we fix this?
First, we need to bolster the middle by expanding the electorate: If more people vote, less influence is exerted by ideologically driven activists who are unwilling to compromise.
Second, the president and leaders of Congress have to remind people that it is necessary for us to work together to meet our challenges.
Third, Congress needs to fix its practices with an eye toward reversing polarization. It should return to the deliberative order of doing business; reduce partisan control of elections and the influence of special interest money; and strengthen the integrity of the electoral system.
Finally, we as citizens have to convey to politicians that there’s a right way and a wrong way to conduct the dialogue of democracy. If we want to keep this country strong, prosperous and free, we need to place a premium on politicians who know how to work together – and with people who don’t agree with them.
Lee Hamilton is a former Democratic congressman from Indiana and is senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government.