This piece was originally published in the Washington Post on September 27, 2019.
Looking for common ground in U.S. politics can feel like a mug’s game. As confirmed daily on Twitter, our unfit president and his minions have loaded all their chips on riling up the GOP right-wing base with nonstop mendacity and hate. Meanwhile, the umpteen Democratic presidential hopefuls respond with a bidding war of half-baked and unpopular proposals designed to capture their party’s far-left fringe. The prospect of a third impeachment crisis in 50 years threatens to further rend what unity our republic has left. Against this backdrop, it’s easy for moderates to despair that a world gone mad has left them behind.
The conventional wisdom holds that the only way to get anything done anymore is through one-party domination. In this view, gridlock can be broken only when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress so that one side can shove its agenda down the other’s throat.
But the conventional wisdom is wrong, and the first two years of the Trump presidency prove the point. Republicans held all the levers of power, but sticking to a far-right agenda ensured they still couldn’t get much done: The big push to repeal and replace Obamacare ended in failure, and a tax cut was the only thing they could squeak through on a party-line vote. Meanwhile, when legislation with appeal to both sides was given the rare chance to succeed, things went very differently. The First Step Act, a major advance in federal sentencing reform to reduce mass incarceration, was able to sail through with strong majority support from both parties.
One reason for this is that Americans are much more divided over political identity than they are over policy. The main fault lines in the country today are race, religion, geography and culture: white rural evangelicals on the right, urban secular whites and people of color on the left. But these demographic divisions don’t correspond very closely to differences over policy itself. As University of Maryland political scientist Lilliana Mason has found, when we leave electioneering behind and focus on the substance of governing, the divisions between Republican and Democratic voters don’t look nearly as clear cut.
Not only is public opinion much more muddled than ideologues would like, but also it shifts over time in reliable ways. Americans tend to be “thermostatic” : When Democrats are in power and passing liberal policies, the public shifts rightward on issues and Republicans tend to make electoral gains; when the GOP gains power and starts passing conservative policies, opinion moves back leftward and Democrats go on a winning streak. True believers in pursuit of ideological purity are like Charlie Brown chasing Lucy’s football: The fickle public shows them the ball when they’re out of power but then yanks it away just as they’re in a position to act.AD
Partisan polarization does discourage cross-party cooperation, but there is a way out. Yes, some familiar, long-contested issues feature partisan battle lines that are clearly drawn: top marginal tax rates, illegal immigration, government financing of health care, abortion, gun control and so on. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. There are a host of policy controversies, with implications for national welfare ranging from significant to profound, whose competing sides are not clearly associated with either Team Red or Team Blue.
Medicare reimbursement rules, intellectual property protection, occupational licensing, zoning and historical preservation laws, economic development subsidies, public research and development funding, traffic congestion control, apprenticeships as an alternative or supplement to classroom instruction — on none of these weighty matters, or countless others besides, do the alternatives align neatly with the ideological contest between left and right. That doesn’t mean these policy areas are unimportant. On the contrary, they are implicated in some of the biggest challenges we now face: runaway prices for health care; slumping economic dynamism and productivity growth; declining geographic mobility in the face of rising regional inequality; and dimming economic prospects for workers without college degrees, among others.
Here in this broad no-man’s-land, moderates can focus squarely on pressing national problems without getting caught up in the partisan screamfest. Here they are free to build cross-party coalitions without facing accusations of going soft and selling out.
We’re not talking about old-fashioned bipartisanship — mushy, split-the-difference compromises on already polarized issues. Rather, the goal is to stage an end-run around polarization by finding genuinely transpartisan causes and solutions: identifying and exploiting areas of confluence where well-crafted policy change can simultaneously advance conservative and progressive ends.
This is the territory we aim to explore in a series of op-eds over the coming months. The series is co-sponsored by The Post and the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank in Washington dedicated to breaking out of the old ideological boxes. Each piece will make the case for a policy reform that tackles an important national problem — and does so in a way that eludes easy left-right labeling.
We hope that each piece will shed light on an important challenge facing the country, and that the series as a whole can help discouraged members of the “exhausted majority” to realize that all is not lost. The path of moderation might be lightly traveled these days and strewn with forbidding obstacles, but it’s the only way forward.
Brink Lindsey is vice president of the Niskanen Center in Washington. This is the first in a series of On Common Ground essays that identifies areas of broad agreement in a divided political era.