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Five Factors Driving Partisanship and Five Solutions to Undermine It

Partisanship has defined modern policymaking. While partisanship is not new to DC, it has recently come with a level of intensity and consistency that makes the partisanship of the past almost unrecognizable. While Congress seems to be at the center of this partisan pandemic, partisanship has infected all levels of government and has dramatically changed the policymaking process, media coverage of policymaking, political campaigns, and the individuals running for elected office. 

Of course, divide around policy is inherently part of the process. Voters should want their leaders to debate issues and not always be in agreement – that is what divides democracies from autocracies. However, disagreements should be rooted in policy, not partisanship. Partisanship has, in some ways, become a reflexive action before policy ramifications are even considered.   


In recent years, partisanship has become so loud, it crowds out the good, bipartisan work that is actually getting done. This Congress, for example, witnessed successful bipartisan efforts to avoid a government shutdown (several times), fund the federal government through 12 appropriations bills, avoid defaulting on the national debt, advance the National Defense Authorization Act, and much more. Those moments, despite being significant, are unknown to most because the partisan stories take priority within the broader narrative. 

There are five key factors driving partisanship:

Incentives Rooted in Fundraising and Elections: From a political standpoint, there are big incentives (in most districts and states) to be partisan, not the least of which is it helps with avoiding potential political opponents in a primary election. Furthermore, it also helps fundraising. Partisan policymakers are not only prolific fundraisers, but they are able to reach a more national audience in doing so. No news here, but politics encourages partisanship and rewards it.   


DC Mindset Addicted to “Winning”: There is a lot of talk about the “DC Bubble,” which is somewhat of a reference to placing oversized priority on insider issues when the rest of the world does not really care about them. While this can be overplayed at times, the reality is that policymakers have become obsessed with “winning” on every issue as though someone is keeping score back in their state or district. This drives partisanship on every amendment, bill, procedural vote, etc., which has expanded the footprint of partisanship from major initiatives to every initiative. 


Evolving Metrics for Success: Press has become an increasingly vital platform for policymakers. In the not-too-distant past, the metric for success was exclusively around passing legislation. That has largely been replaced (for a large portion of Congress) with getting press and social media attention – an aspect of DC that has proven to be very successful for some policymakers. Partisan politicians that are willing to advance extreme messages (and constantly increase the ante) get the most attention in the press and on social media. That attention builds power, influence, and a strong following. As this dynamic has emerged, policy has begun to be driven by communications – which is dominated by partisan policymakers.    

Narrow Majorities:  When the House or Senate only has a one-seat majority, both sides of the political aisle begin to prioritize team over progress. Bipartisanship becomes looked down upon (and even penalized at times). There is little incentive to do anything but align with partisan colleagues. Ironically, those who buck that system are often the most partisan members who then try and force their colleagues to join them. With narrow majorities, every vote counts and the most partisan members have leveraged that reality well.   


Outside Organizations and Grassroots: It is not only Congress that is creating partisanship, but also well-funded third-party groups that have strong interests in an ideology and large grassroots networks aimed at holding policymakers accountable to that ideology. Of course, those groups are not often pushing a bipartisan message (i.e., immigration, environment, etc.), and policymakers fear being the focus of these organizations.     

Below are five key solutions to partisanship on the rise:

Bipartisan Working Groups: Policymakers coming together to solve issues or reach agreement without the pressure of legislative deadlines or political outcomes is important. This was epitomized by the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress and the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party – both of which brought strong bipartisan cooperation. There should be more opportunities like this for ideation by both parties together.

More Policymaker Travel: This sounds simple, but it actually has a big impact. Policymakers that travel together on overseas congressional delegation trips are able to connect outside of the bright lights of the press and away from the campaign trail. In many cases, these are some of the only times that policymakers can meaningfully connect with their colleagues across the political aisle. Getting to know each other makes it easier to work together and, even more importantly, reduces the aggressive distrust that is helping to fuel partisanship. 


A Data-Driven Congress: Partisanship has, in part, been driven by narratives that define their own fact pattern to meet an easily delivered top-line message. The infusion of data into decision-making is desperately needed and would have the adjacent benefit of bringing both sides together around issues. When basic facts are up for debate and when policy is driven by talking points, it’s not a surprise partisanship takes hold. Data-driven decision-making will be a significant step forward in creating a foundation for bipartisanship.  


Regular Order: When there are more amendments to vote on, there are more opportunities for policymakers to work together. As Congress has shifted away from more open legislative processes, there have been fewer opportunities to work together. Opening up the legislative process could be an important factor in encouraging bipartisanship moving forward. 


Supporting the Institution of Congress: Many of the people in Congress believe (or at least campaign on) the theory that Congress is the problem, not the solution. This has contributed to low public approval of Congress and an internal effort to demonize the institution, and in doing so, blaming counterparts from the other party. Changing the culture within Congress will not only impact policymakers, but also the thousands of staff that support them. If policymakers see Congress for what it is – a venue for policy opportunity – more policymakers are likely to reach across the political aisle. 

Partisanship will likely get worse before it gets better, and it may just be the new environment we all need to adapt to. That being said, small changes should be prioritized to undermine the root causes that incentivize partisanship. 


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