Two Ideas for Unprecedented Times

We are living in almost unprecedented times. Many problems have piled up on top of another in a way younger Americans have never seen – and older Americans haven’t seen for many decades.

  • The war in Ukraine is causing serious global shortages of fuel and food on top of numerous supply-side problems all around the world due to the covid epidemic. Shortages are pushing up prices and frustration levels. These could get worse before they get better.
  • Those international and economic problems come on top of deep and worsening divisions between many Americans over many issues.

We propose two ideas for all Americans during these difficult times.

  • First, it is impossible to see solutions clearly in a fog of anger and fear. If we are to solve any of our problems, it is our duty as Americans to keep our spirits up and help those around us do the same. (Our short course on how to fight fear-mongering might help.) Work to stay in the light. Do not succumb to the darkness.
  • Second, the only way forward in our system is to find solutions enough people on both sides of an issue can agree on. The framers who drafted our Constitution – and those who amended so many times later – knew we humans will always be fighting amongst ourselves. They planned for it. They came up with a system that divided and shared powers in so many ways that no one faction could easily dominate the others. (See our short courses on America: Republic or Democracy, the Presidency, and Federalism.)

Our increased polarization has not changed this math. Despite what we hear all around us, gridlock has not increased. The volume of law-making by Congress measured by page count has not gone down. Bipartisanship is not dead. To the contrary, it remains a necessity. Almost every law adopted by Congress in the last 50 years was passed with substantial minority party support, even after polarization set in. (Political science wonks will want to refer to Curry & Lee (2020), chapter two in particular.)

If Congress (or a state legislature) cannot craft a bipartisan solution to a problem, it is probably because they don’t believe their voters are ready to make a deal. This is where grassroots campaigning needs to kick in. Persuasive arguments and open minds. Patience and persistence. Knocking on doors you never visited before. Running and electing problem-solvers rather than warriors.

But polarization does do harm. Passionate partisans become tempted to ignore election outcomes or rig elections through partisan election administration, gerrymandering, voter registration laws, bribery, intimidation, and violence. These tactics never lead to durable victories. Instead, they only motivate more of the same.

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