What if our country was being slowly divided and pulled apart, not on a particular issue, but over a host of issues in which there is no ideological overlap between the two sides. What if those with non-extreme views were being left out of our political system. What if this issue had a name, but no current solution. Welcome to our political reality… Partisanship.
I first became interested in this issue during Barack Obama’s presidency, when he and the Republican controlled Senate and House became locked in a stalemate and neither side could advance their agenda. This seemed to me a scenario in which our government was not performing too well.
What is Partisanship?
Partisanship is when someone feels a bias in favor of a certain party. This bias manifests itself when a person values their own party over the country. In the United States, this has been a problem since the very first parties were founded in 1787. However, there have been times where the two parties have set aside their squabbles for the greater good. After World War 2, as communism became the greatest threat to the United States, bipartisanship measures were used to enact legislation that supported Greek parties fighting communist backed parties for control of Greece and the Marshall Plan, which delivered aid to post-war Europe (Keenan Mayo). In addition, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was only passed with bipartisanship support from southern Democrats, who initially attempted to filibuster the act for 57 days (Keenan Mayo). A bipartisan committee worked tirelessly investigating the Watergate scandal and Nixon. In 1993, under Clinton, both parties overwhelmingly supported a welfare act that ended up decreasing poverty rates (Keenan Mayo). Despite some extraordinary instances of bipartisanship, which have greatly benefited our country, partisanship has continued to exist in varying degrees. Fast forward to today and partisanship has been steadily increasing, as people have coalesced around issues and “the share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10% to 21%,” resulting in a nation that has become increasingly divided (Dane Kennedy).
Why is this an issue?
Our government needs a healthy amount of bipartisanship in order to run properly. An example of this is our budget resolutions, which typically happen once a year, and if Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on a budget, the government can become shut down. In another example, even if a certain party has a majority in the Senate, that is not guarantee of a bill passing smoothly, as if a senator chooses to delay the vote by speaking as long as they wish unless 60 senators bring the debate to a close, and now a majority of 60 senator has become the new norm in order to pass a bill. In addition, with our current government system with checks and balances between the three branches, it is unlikely that they will be all controlled by the same party, which means that the two parties must work together. Also, if laws are being made to defeat the opposing party, it is less likely that they will be helpful to our country and instead be antagonistic. Another issue with partisanship is that as the two main parties become increasingly divided, neither party represents all of the Americans which reside in the “middle,” who consequently get left out.
A common solution that has been suggested to solve this problem, has been to eliminate gerrymandering. Gerrymandering occurs when geographical or political boundaries have been drawn in a way that a certain party can gain more seats than their popular vote suggests they should win. Partisanship is related to gerrymandering because gerrymandering makes districts uncompetitive. When the race is safe, politicians do not have to appeal to moderates or members of the other party, polarizing politician’s views.
Many people propose to solve this problem by making the districts have perfect representation, but the problem is, perfect representation based on what? We want partisan fairness, but we also want competition in each district. We want racial minorities to get fair representation, but we also the map to make geographic sense (Matthew Yglesias). It would be hard to ensure all of these qualities are met simply by redistricting, so I suggest that we completely reform the voting system.
I believe that partisanship is not a problem with a simple or easy fix. Firstly I would argue that we need to change the current voting system to move away from the two party system and incorporate more than just two polar opposite viewpoints into our country. These are some ways we could do this:
This video illustrates that our voting system is in need of serious reform. The current system of only two parties forces people to vote for one or the other in an attempt to not waste their vote, even if the candidate does not accurately represent their beliefs. There are several ways of fixing this, which are discussed in the video, such as Party List, which seats representatives from each party (hopefully more than two) proportional to how much of the vote each party receives. There is also the Alternative Vote System, where voters rank their candidates, so it is not just a winner take all system with only one vote to cast for one candidate.
Secondly, I believe that we should implement a compulsory voting system in which a person must show up at the voting station or face a small fine. A common misconception is that this would violate the first amendment of free speech, however, you merely have to show up and do not have to vote. If there was compulsory voter turnout, many more people than the current 61.4% that voted in the 2016 Presidential election and the paltry 36.4% that voted in the 2014 Midterm elections. Currently the people that vote are at the extremes of either side and therefore are politically motivated to vote, as they feel very strongly one way or another. Therefore, with a low voter turnout, politics become very divided. If there was a high voter turnout, politicians would be forced to appeal to a wider range of people including those in the middle, which would would encourage an overlap of views from politicians and more bipartisanship.
With these reforms, I must offer a large caveat. These are very major reforms and it will be extremely hard to enact them, especially as they may not benefit the two parties that are currently in power and who make the decisions (independent parties would likely gain seats from the Party List and Alternative Vote System at the expense of Democrats and Republicans).
Call to Action!
In order to be a part of the solution, America needs you!
Please take this pledge. By taking this pledge you are agreeing to do one of the following:
- Vote for every Senate, House, and Presidential election in your life time (to the best of your ability)
- Send a letter to one of your representatives asking for the voting reforms listed above.
- Learn more about this topic and educate 5 other people (asking each of them to take this pledge)
Kennedy, Dane. “Congressional Partisanship in Historical Perspective.”American Historical Association, 8 June 2016,.
Aly, Waleed. “Voting Should Be Mandatory.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/19/opinion/voting-should-be-mandatory.html.
“ How to Break the Two-Party Hold on American Politics.” How to Break the Two-Party Hold on American Politics, Voz, 6 Nov. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nd-9op64t2M.
Yglesias, Matthew. “The Real Fix for Gerrymandering Is Proportional Representation.”Vox, Vox, 11 Oct. 2017, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/11/16453512/gerrymandering-proportional-representation.
Mayo, Keenan. “An Illustrated History of Washington Bipartisanship.” The Hive, Vanity Fair, 31 Jan. 2015, www.vanityfair.com/news/2010/08/illustrated-washington.