Skip to main content

Are we doomed to polarization?

07/23/2014 06:22PM, Published by Lev, Categories: In Print, Opinion



By Lee H. Hamilton

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.



Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Chester County's free newsletter to catch every headline



lee hamilton


You might also like

Why I still have faith in Congress

Lee H. Hamilton for the week of June 4, 2014.

  • Cecil County Fair

    07/29/2015
    08:00am — 09:00pm

    There is something for everyone at the Cecil County Fair. Highlights include the carnival midway,...


  • Children of all ages are welcome to join us! Admission is free. Enjoy games, prizes, bouncy castl...


  • Gentle Yoga

    07/29/2015
    05:00pm — 06:00pm

    Reduce the aches and pains of age by increasing your range of motion through the practice of yoga...


  • Hatha Yoga

    07/29/2015
    06:30pm — 07:30pm

    This series of vigorous exercises is designed to strengthen the body and increase flexibility whi...


  • NFL Flag Football Fall Season Sign-ups

    07/29/2015
    07:00pm — 11:55pm

    NFL Flag Football Fall Season Sign-ups Avon Grove NFL Flag Football has begun on-line registra...


  • Cecil County Fair

    07/30/2015
    08:00am — 09:00pm

    There is something for everyone at the Cecil County Fair. Highlights include the carnival midway,...


  • Turtle - Kids Paint with LouLou!

    07/30/2015
    10:30am — 12:00pm

    Looking for something fun for your kids to do on a summer morning? Join LouLou for 1.5 hours of p...


  • Sunday Brunch

    07/30/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • Coatesville Youth Initiative Open House

    07/30/2015
    04:00pm — 07:00pm

    Please join us to welcome our new space! Light refreshments - drop in format - ample reserved pa...


  • Clutterers Anonymous

    07/30/2015
    06:00pm — 07:00pm

    Clutterers Anonymous℠ (CLA℠) is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strengt...


  • NFL Flag Football Fall Season Sign-ups

    07/30/2015
    07:00pm — 11:55pm

    NFL Flag Football Fall Season Sign-ups Avon Grove NFL Flag Football has begun on-line registra...


  • Cecil County Fair

    07/31/2015
    08:00am — 09:00pm

    There is something for everyone at the Cecil County Fair. Highlights include the carnival midway,...


  • Sunday Brunch

    07/31/2015
    11:00am — 02:00pm

    Every Sunday from 11-2PM Continental Buffet, Waffle bar, fresh fruits, Mimosa, Bloody Mary an...


  • NFL Flag Football Fall Season Sign-ups

    07/31/2015
    07:00pm — 11:55pm

    NFL Flag Football Fall Season Sign-ups Avon Grove NFL Flag Football has begun on-line registra...


 

Chester County High School Sports