Columnist: We can reconcile polarized politics

2010-12-03T23:50:00Z Columnist: We can reconcile polarized politicsBy LEE H. HAMILTON
December 03, 2010 11:50 pm  • 

There's a funny thing going on in our national politics right now: Everyone deplores polarization, but it just keeps getting worse.

Voters are clearly unhappy with the partisanship that has taken over Capitol Hill. They tend to prefer the moderation of the political center, yet the past few elections they've produced wild back-and-forth shifts between parties. Many politicians, meanwhile, understand that getting things done requires compromise. Yet they cluster helplessly behind partisan lines. It's begun to seem as though there's no way out.

No single key unlocks this problem. But you've given up on members of Congress finding a way to work together for the good of the country, then it's time to take dramatic steps to reverse course. To do this, we need to make progress in four arenas.

The first is elections. Americans as a whole may be centrist, but the dynamics of party politics, primaries and wave elections have decimated congressional moderates. Bolstering the strength of the political center, then, is necessary. Probably the best way to do this is for states to make it easier for more people to vote. The more people that vote, the harder it is for ideologically driven party activists to control elections, and the more likely it is that the moderate center will be strengthened.

Extending voting hours and making Election Day a holiday or holding it on a weekend are two ways to do this; so is lowering registration barriers. Open primaries, along the lines of what Californians recently voted into place, would allow independents and moderates to exert more influence on primaries -- and to move party nominees toward the center.

Next, the president needs to get in on the act. Changing the dynamics of polarization will require politicians to focus more on making the country work and less on maneuvering for partisan advantage. The president is the central actor in our governmental system, so much of the initiative has to come from him. He must constantly remind people that the job of the policymaker is to put country first and politics second, and he must lead by example.

More regular give-and-take between the president and Congress and between the president and the press would be healthy for our democracy.

Congress sometimes seems so trapped in its ways that it's hard to imagine it can change. But some steps could help. Political scientists discount the role of highly partisan redistricting in producing highly partisan members of Congress, but it's hard to imagine that the nonpartisan drawing of district lines -- and thus the chances of creating districts that require candidates to play to the middle -- would have no effect.

Similarly, pressuring Congress to fix its procedures -- to put in more time in Washington during the week; to return to real conference committees that require members to compromise with one another in order to reach a final agreement on a bill; to institute more open rules and fewer restrictions on how legislation gets considered; to restore the regular and deliberative order of doing business, rejecting omnibus bills and other legislative shortcuts -- would force members to work together more, get to know and understand one another better, and ensure that the minority gets better treatment. 

The media need to change, too. Today they love to polarize issues. Broadcasters in particular need to recognize that along with their use of a public good -- the airwaves -- come responsibilities and obligations. Their eagerness to pander to the everyone-likes-a-good-fight instincts of their audiences, and to reject their solemn responsibility to educate fairly and fully has undoubtedly made our politics coarser, more polarized and less capable of producing progress for our nation.

In the end, the change will have to come from you. Both politicians and media moguls are responsive to the market -- that is, the individual civic decisions of millions of people. We all need to find ways to convey to them that there is a right way and a wrong way to conduct the dialogue of democracy, and that those who polarize our politics are making it harder, not easier, to achieve a more perfect union.

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.

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