Coalition building in American politics is becoming a lost art form. This needs to change if we want our political institutions to regain the effectiveness they once had. From the grassroots to the highest legislatures, coalition building is an integral part of a healthy political system. The very backbone of democracy is healthy consensus: the idea that while we may not be in total agreement, we serve the best interests of the majority by working together.
Why, then, has it become a lost art at the highest levels of politics? Why is “compromise” synonymous with capitulation and failure, rather than an intelligent measuring of the relevant facts to create a mutually beneficial outcome? The present political moment is defined by entrenchment and polarization from top to bottom, with the long-term health of the American system at stake.
You barely need to follow the news to know that political divisions are incredibly high at the moment. When in power in recent years, both Democrats and Republicans have taken a gladiatorial stance towards seeing their agendas enacted. Whether creating seemingly endless political standoffs out of Supreme Court appointments or the unbudging Congressional majorities that now define the legislative body, neither side of the aisle has an exclusive claim to being the force of division in America’s government today. The problem is clearly a shared one.
The rise of political polarization isn’t just something I’ve observed (and experienced) personally, it’s a measured fact. A UCLA study measuring liberal-conservative partisan polarization in Congress found our lawmakers are currently more divided than ever since 1880, where their data begins. Even the contentious post-Reconstruction era in the decades following the Civil War didn’t see such a sizeable gap in ideology, with deep disdain for any sort of compromise.
It’s not only in Congress that we see such drastic separation. Whether on social media or cable news, the political messaging that voters receive sparks similar feelings of antagonism and separation. It seems we are happier within our own bubbles of opinion rather than seeking greater understanding of our opponents across the spectrum of opinion.
It’s unclear whether one is a symptom of the other, but it’s clear both anecdotally and by hard evidence that political polarization is at untenably high levels in both the public and private spheres of American life.
Coalition building, long a fundamental piece of political action, has seemingly become outdated. Rather than reaching out to create something beneficial to all, both sides instead choose to withdraw into themselves, energizing a base but cutting off open dialogue that can create larger successes for all. Early Americans did this by marrying Puritan style utilitarianism with principled respect for individualism. Through our short lived history, we have proudly been moral pragmatists. This legacy is now in danger, which is especially tragic when considering how successful past coalitions have shaped the United States in times of crisis.
The historical record abounds with successful stories of coalitions that put their differences aside to achieve great things. No less an act than holding the very country together during its most trying time was accomplished thanks to Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” More recently, major progress in improving campaign finance laws happened thanks to McCain and Feingold reaching across the aisle.
Yet the problem of excessive division persists. Senator McCain’s recent passing seemingly represents the end of a bygone era of bipartisan teamwork. Multiple retrospectives of his life and career made note of his collaborations with Democrats, including efforts to fix major issues in judicial nominations and immigration reform.
But the future does not necessarily have to be a grim one. There’s still reason for optimism looking forward. As a matter of fact, a Columbia Law Review study of American political history found that past periods of high conflict have been followed up by eras of relative amiability, and the risk of a so-called “terminal constitutional dysfunction” is overblown.
Are we truly in an historically unprecedented period of polarization, one that studies of the past couldn’t map a solution for? The answer to that question ultimately is up to us. If we believe in America, we can stand up for a better political process at home and in Washington, and put our time and donations towards candidates committed to smart, beneficial compromise over a blinkered win-at-all-costs philosophy. Political compromise is not necessarily a compromise in values.
Make no mistake, having the courage of your convictions often means standing up to oppositional forces. I would never tell a political leader to back down from a challenge when people’s safety or freedom is at risk. Diversity of opinion and the free expression of such is the lifeblood of a healthy government. However, we all must take care never to create destructive battles out of simple disagreements.
Finding a third way, an opportunity to work together to bring real change into existence, needn’t be considered a betrayal. On the contrary, to reject the idea of compromise is a betrayal of this country’s greatest ideals. At its purest definition, politics needs coalitions and consensuses to thrive. By fostering a culture that neglects chances to come together, we deny future generations a chance at making a better world.