promoting democracy and reducing polarization

Some of the threats to democracy in the USA involve bias or injustice in our political system: barriers to registration and voting, gerrymandered districts, the filibuster, money in politics, the Electoral College, and an unrepresentative Senate. With some important exceptions, reforms that address those problems will tend to benefit Democrats and progressive causes.

A particular kind of polarization also threatens democracy. The problem is not disagreement. Our elected representatives should hold diverse political views–maybe more diverse than they do now. Debate and contestation are valuable. It is good to have at least two parties with sharply distinct approaches, so that people can choose between them.

However, our Constitution was written by people who disliked parties and didn’t anticipate them. It is badly designed for partisan polarization. Whenever the branches are controlled by different parties that have homogeneous ideologies, all the incentives favor mutually destructive game-playing.

I can accept the argument that Republicans have played harder and less ethically than Democrats, although I am not certain that’s true, because my prior assumptions and my media stream are biased. But even if it’s true, all the incentives now predict that Democrats will play tit-for-tat.

Besides, affective partisanship–disliking fellow citizens because of their political identities–is the kind of divide that prevents human groups from governing themselves. In order to deliberate, you need not agree, but you must believe that it’s valuable to discuss common issues with the other side. Affective polarization blocks discussion. In the absence of a reasonable level of goodwill, arguments and reasons have no purchase.

The main alternative is simply power: amassing more votes than the other side has. That is preferable to amassing more dollars or more guns than the other side, but it is still raw power. It is government by accident and force, not by reflection and choice, to paraphrase Federalist #1. I suppose if mobilizing more votes consistently generated good outcomes, it might be OK–but it doesn’t.

Democrats and progressives (if they take power) and nonpartisan reformers face a real dilemma. Political reforms will be seen as partisan because they have unequal effects, but partisan polarization is also a problem–and an obstacle to achieving progressive goals.

This is what I would recommend:

First, push political reforms despite their partisan impact if they’re the right things to do. Not only are equity and accountability very high priorities, but our current system actually worsens polarization by giving the parties too many opportunities to pass or block policies without building consensus. I’d vote for expanding the Senate and the Supreme Court, but those reforms are so unlikely that perhaps it’s a mistake to focus much attention on them. More to the point would be voter protection, districting reform, and ending the filibuster.

Second, include political reforms that are bad for Democrats if those are also the right things to do. Redistricting reform meets that criterion in some states. Ranked-choice voting might qualify. Constraining the executive branch is an example, if Biden is president.

An often-overlooked problem involves the dates of municipal elections. Many mayors and city councils are elected in odd-numbered years or in different months than November. Democratic incumbents and municipal employees’ unions benefit because the electorate shrinks to hard-core party and union members. But turnout is often miserably low. I’d move municipal elections to November of even-numbered years and fight Democratic city halls to get that done.

Third, take explicit actions to reduce affective polarization by promoting cross-partisan dialogue and deliberation.

  • Civic education can help if it focuses on discussions of contested issues.
  • Private efforts like Braver Angels have a role.
  • The federal government could organize official public deliberations on controversial matters. The UK Climate Assembly might be a worthy recent model, but the same method could be used to discuss whether to open schools during the pandemic.
  • After the election, Biden and/or Harris could attend listening sessions with people who might be alienated from them–including right-wing groups but also marginalized people of color. It would be easy to mobilize partisans to distort these sessions. Biden/Harris could turn them into manipulative symbolic events. However, skillful advance work could make them work out better. For example, imagine Biden visiting a conservative evangelical church in the South without prior public notice (maybe he’d coordinate in advance with the pastor) and listening to congregants behind the closed church doors before emerging to make some remarks. If that were done with sincerity, it could make a difference.

The extreme polarization of the news and information sphere may actually help. As Barack Obama learned, it doesn’t really matter how you act; the right-wing news cycle will treat you as an anti-American extremist. Under these circumstances, why not push for genuinely worthwhile reforms, while also making sincere efforts to combat polarization?

See also: Four Threats to American Democracy video; empathy boosts polarization; what is polarization and when is it bad?; marginalizing views in a time of polarization; on playing hardball with the shutdown, an agenda for political reform in Massachusetts; is our constitutional order doomed? etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.