We Americans are trapped in a political dilemma. We all like representative democracy, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing.
The reason for this dissatisfaction is clear. Polls in recent years detail a polarized nation, divided both ideologically and politically. This is, as the Pew Research Center put it recently, “a defining feature of politics today.” In the public’s eye, Washington gets most of the blame for this.
Yet Congress and the political world around it reflect the rest of the country more than we’d like to believe. Our nation is divided ideologically. It’s also segregated politically, with many Americans preferring to associate with and live near people who share their views; gerrymandered districts and closed primaries intensify the effect. Our media is more partisan than it used to be. Interest groups — many of them funded by ordinary Americans who want their voices magnified — are more engaged than they were a generation ago. And though we deplore negative politics, we respond to it and even encourage our favorite partisans to engage in it.
Anyone who becomes President today does so with nearly half the country opposed to him the day he takes office. Moreover, we face a long list of issues where decisive action may be impossible: abortion, gun control, climate change, a host of budgetary and economic problems, the death penalty, tax reform, immigration, drug laws. These issues don’t just divide Congress; they divide the nation, with no clear path forward.
Our admired political system, in other words, is not working well. In Pew’s survey, the extremes make up just over a third of the American public, but because they’re disproportionately active they drive our politics. The larger, more diverse center can’t agree on a direction for the country, but its members are united by their distaste for the tone of politics and the unwillingness of politicians to compromise and break the stalemate. We are not getting the politics we want.
So how do we resolve our dilemma?
There are many procedural steps that can ease the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Among them, the House and Senate could schedule themselves so that they’re in session at the same time. Congressional leaders and the President ought to meet at least once a month. Congress needs to work the same five-day week that the rest of us do, and reduce its centralized leadership by empowering committees. Open primaries would help moderate the nation’s politics, as would bipartisan redistricting commissions capable of doing away with gerrymandered districts. Increasing voter participation and improving the integrity of our elections would also help. Limiting the Senate filibuster and allowing minority parties in both chambers more of an opportunity to offer amendments, would open up debate and forestall endless stalemates.
But resolving our dilemma is unlikely to happen quickly. It’s hard to see either side in this partisan divide winning or losing decisively in the elections immediately ahead. Even if one party wins both houses in Congress, it’s not easy to move when the White House is in the control of another party. With the need for 60 votes in the Senate, the minority party can always find ways to slow things down.
Still, it’s worth remembering that American politics is dynamic, not static. Change occurs, sometimes quickly, but more often slowly. We won’t forever be this evenly divided, because public opinion will eventually evolve and the system will respond.
Which raises my final point. Even when our frustration with division and discord spills over into impatience with the system itself, our obligations as American citizens remain the same. We face complex problems that don’t have simple solutions. They demand a willingness to exercise the values of representative democracy: tolerance, mutual respect, accepting ideological differences, working to build consensus.
Our core values accept that the differences in opinions among us will continue, but also compel us to find a way through them so the country can move forward. By accepting the challenges that come with living in a representative democracy and renewing our confidence in it, we can lay the groundwork for change. In the end, we created our political dilemma and are responsible for working our way through it.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.