According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans see “dysfunctional government” as the country’s biggest challenge.1 And there is wide agreement that our government has become dysfunctional as a result of hyper-partisan political polarization. While polarization has many causes, the root of the problem is found in our country’s simmering cultural values war that is enmeshed in win-lose thinking.
The dismal failure of numerous reform efforts over the last two decades has left the American public increasingly cynical about the possibility of a real solution. We can recall the Congressional retreats of the late 1990s (which led nowhere), or Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform in 2002 (which inadvertently lead to Citizen’s United). In 2008, Presidential candidate Barak Obama announced that there was no red or blue America, only the United States of America and, if elected, his leadership would bring us together. In 2010, “No Labels” was launched as an effort to move beyond partisanship to problem solving, but their biggest accomplishment was getting legislators from different parties to sit next to each other at the State of the Union. Then, in 2012 came “American’s Elect,” which promised to reform our primary system. Tom Friedman predicted: “What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what Drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life—remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out.”2
Yet after raising and spending $35M, this effort collapsed. Similarly, during the last election in 2014, Yale law professor Lawrence Lessig launched his vaunted “Mayday Pac,” which raised over $10M to elect reform members to Congress, only to lose in every race they engaged in.
So why did all of these well-intentioned efforts fail? Is the system just too tough to challenge? Is the money just too powerful to defeat? Those would be our fallback answers, but the real answer to why we can’t solve our political dysfunction problem is that we’ve failed to identify the real problem.
All of the reform movements mentioned above believe at their core that the problem facing our political system is essentially structural. Fix gerrymandering, campaign finance, closed primaries, or the two party duopoly—get people talking again—and polarization will be solved. The message is simple: change the structures, change the politics. This focus on structural solutions is based on the assumption that the American public is actually fairly united, but evil political parties, radio talk show hosts, and 24/7 cable stations have effectively sorted us into opposing camps that serve their own narrow purposes.
But what if that’s not the real problem? What if these dividing influences are more of an effect of polarization rather than its underlying cause? If we can’t clearly see the foundational causes of our political dysfunction we’ll keep trying to fix the wrong problem, getting similar failed results and becoming even more cynical about America’s future.
Having worked deeply on political reform and social change for the past twenty years, I (Rich) have come to realize that we reformers have been missing the real problem. The trouble with American politics today is that there are in fact significant differences among the major segments of the electorate. These differences are based in real, heart felt values, and until we understand that this is the problem, no solution will work.
The Washington Post recently ran a fantastic piece by Phillip Bump showing that, in fact, the best way to understand our Congressional makeup is to recognize the four distinct groups that now comprise the House and Senate caucuses. This eye-opening piece is definitely worth a read.3
Bump’s well documented analysis of America’s four legislative camps provides insight into the deeper forces behind our polarization. Going beyond the numbers, we can see how each group is defined by the values they hold. Moving left to right; we start with the progressive left, whose most strongly held values include environmental protection, diversity, a voice for oppressed people, and a peaceful foreign policy. Next comes the center-left establishment, who represent the more mainstream values of the Democratic party. For many, this center-left establishment camp is seen as not much different than the center-right establishment, which is fiscally conservative yet fairly liberal on social issues. Both the center-left and center-right establishment camps place their trust in science, and they’re both pro-business and eminently pragmatic. In short, while they disagree on matters of policy, the core values of both establishment camps are actually very similar. They value results more than principals.
However, like their progressive counterparts on the far left, the socially conservative right take their values more seriously and are less willing to compromise. This camp adheres to a well defined set of traditional values that include respect for authority, hard work and self-reliance, and a firm sense of morality based on their religious convictions.
As the Washington Post piece makes clear, the four distinct camps that comprise America’s current congressional caucuses derive their values from three essential worldviews, which we can identify as: progressive, establishment, and traditional. This analysis of competing value sets shows how the Democratic party is itself polarized between progressives and its center-left establishment. The Republican party is likewise polarized between its center-right establishment and the socially conservative wing of the party. When we look at our current stalemate from this perspective we realize that before we can really begin to reduce polarization between Republicans and Democrats overall, we’ll actually need to ameliorate the conflict of values that exists within each party first.
The task of reducing conflicts at the level of values is informed by discoveries in personal psychology, which can teach us about the larger social psychology of our body politic. These discoveries show that when you repress or marginalize a part of yourself, it usually finds an unhealthy way to be heard—often through sabotage. Applying this analysis to the electorate, we can see how the progressive and traditional parts of our “American self”—the far left and the far right—are both being marginalized by the establishment, and they’ve both found unhealthy ways to be heard, namely through hyper-partisan demonization of each other.
So how could the political parties better include the best values from their progressive and traditional wings? Republicans would need to take the foundational values of the traditional wing, such as hard work, meritocracy, faith, family, and the unique role of the US in the world, and marry these up with the center-right establishment values of science, business and pragmatism to identify the issues that unite both wings. To do this, the GOP will need to move away from the win-lose thinking that dominates our current civil war. They need to move away from a strategy that marginalizes the conservative source of their values and attempt to bring forward the best of these values in a fresh way.
The Democrats will need to do the same. They will need to more effectively advance the best of their progressive wing, such as concern for minorities and the environment, combining these with the best of the center-left establishment, which understands the value of business, science, and America’s changing role in the world.
Yet the question remains: why don’t the establishment Democrats and Republicans, who actually are very similar, simply join forces and create their own centrist party which would be more effective at marginalizing the progressive and traditional “extremes” that are the source of the polarization? The short answer is that some form of polarity always appears wherever political questions are decided. Polarities are built into nature, and rooted even in human biology, so there will always be two major poles in American politics. Leaving the progressives and traditionalists out in the cold would actually lead to further upheavals (such as the Tea Party and Occupy movements), as those wings sought to find a voice anyway they could. Moreover, the establishment wings of both parties are often so practically-focused that they disregard any form of deeply rooted values, often losing sight of the basic values of right and wrong in pursuit of their political goals.
Stated differently, what many see as the political “extremes” are actually the holders of America’s core values, which include both traditional and progressive ideals of morality. Thus, in order to depolarize American politics, both parties will need to start by depolarizing themselves. This will involve teasing apart the best from the worst within both of these progressive and traditional sources of America’s values.
On the progressive side, this means bringing forward the values of “people and planet” while rejecting the anti-establishment views that are hostile to much of what America has achieved. On the traditional side, this means bringing forward the values of family, personal responsibility, and patriotism while rejecting the fundamentalist and ethnocentric views that now hold us back in an increasingly globalized world.
In the past, national political conventions served as the main method for bringing together competing views into a single voice that could represent each party as a whole. But today the establishment wings of both parties carefully control and manipulate their conventions, making them more like scripted commercials than effective forums that can forge agreement.
Therefore, what’s needed on the right are small conclaves of leaders who understand these underlying value issues sufficiently so as to better integrate the best of traditional values with the pragmatism of a center-right. Leaders on the left can likewise follow the same strategy to better integrate the best progressive values with the pragmatism of the center-left. And as both parties work to depolarize themselves, many of the unhealthy value conflicts that have crippled our political system will be eased.
In summary, in order to depolarize the American electorate, we must first start within our two parties. By more effectively bringing forward the best values from each side, we can create a more functional form of left-right tension, and thereby realize the benefits of healthy competition, rather than the acrimonious stagnation that currently plagues our democracy. But if we fail to engage the underlying values that are driving the debate, we’ll continue to pursue misguided efforts that focus exclusively on structural reforms, which will continue to fail and lead to even deeper levels of cynicism.