If I told you that America today is deeply polarized, you could remind me that America has always been deeply polarized. You could point out that the current rural/urban divide is not so dissimilar from the Jeffersonian/Hamilton divide at the country’s founding. Or that the racial divide was never greater than during the Civil War, or that class division and conflict between labor and business was never greater than during the first Gilded Age and into the Great Depression. And you’d be right.
But what you’d be missing is the fact that polarization today is very different in a subtle way. As Michael Tomasky points out in his latest book, If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved, while we’ve always been a polarized country, our polarization has always consisted of both conflict between political parties and within parties. The fact that you used to have, for example, several liberal Republicans and several conservative Democrats meant that bipartisan coalitions could form to negotiate, compromise, and actually pass worthwhile legislation.
Today is a different story. Both left and right have drifted from the center. Radicalized versions of each party find it increasingly difficult to talk to each other, and, as a result, very little gets accomplished. This is what’s different about today.
In the first part of the book, Tomasky describes how the country arrived at this point, and it’s not pretty. It has a lot to do with the recent concentrated effort of the conservative movement to build a massive media outlet and pump a lot of money into the political process. But it also has more than a little to do with the left’s morphing into its own version of the right, employing some of the same tactics the right is known for, like suppressing speech and inciting violence.
Regardless of how it happened, we are living during a time where two ideologically opposed parties are drifting farther apart with no countervailing forces within each party to reel them back in. So what, if anything, can be done?
That’s where Tomasky’s 14-point agenda to reduce polarization comes in, which is covered in depth in the book’s final chapter. While even Tomasky is unsure whether his plan would actually work, he’s identified the political and social fixes that give us our best shot.
In terms of political fixes, some of his ideas seem to be feasible and could be implemented immediately, and some are, as Tomasky admits, unlikely to be adopted. But the extreme political environment we’re in requires extreme solutions, and a bit of thinking outside of the box is necessary if we’re going to make a serious effort to dig ourselves out of the partisan hole we’ve dug over the last quarter century.
Tomasky’s first idea seems to be a good one, supported by many: eliminating political gerrymandering. Done right, this would both ensure that political parties are not over- or underrepresented in Congress (based on the political composition of each state) and that elections could become more competitive.
His next best idea is the introduction of ranked-choice voting, which, among many other advantages, would produce more moderate politicians and less negative ad campaigns as politicians would now have to worry about appealing to all voters, so as to avoid being ranked last by a significant part of the voter base. This is the suggestion I would most like to see instituted. Of course, every policy has its tradeoffs, and ranked-choice voting can produce some bizarre outcomes mathematically, but it’s worth looking at, and the benefits seem to outweigh the costs.
Another idea that could be implemented immediately is the elimination of the Senate filibuster, which is not part of the Constitution and is simply a procedural tradition we should probably do away with. Eliminating the filibuster will put an end to the very undemocratic supermajority it requires to pass anything in the Senate.
Finally, getting rid of the Electoral College, or forcing the states to commit their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote (in addition to installing ranked-choice voting) would force presidential candidates to cater to those outside of their own base, incentivizing more moderate and civilized behavior.
As for social fixes, the overarching goal is to get people to talk to each other and work together, since it’s easier to hate someone you don’t know, or to hate the idea of someone you have in your head that may or may not reflect reality. To promote this kind of collaboration, Tomasky is recommending high school and college “foreign exchange” programs within the United States, so that northern liberals can work with southern conservatives and vice versa. He also suggests that college be reduced from four years to three years, with the final year dedicated to civil service. I’m not so sure about that one (sacrificing a full year of class-based learning), but the exchange programs seem to be a workable idea.
Tomaksy also recommends expanding civic education in high schools, recognizing the obvious fact that college exchange programs will have no effect on the 60 to 70 percent of Americans who end their formal education at high school.
The idea is that, rather than focusing on preparing students for the workforce, as merely cogs in a larger economic machine, schools should make more of an effort to prepare citizens for responsible civic participation. This includes an expanded history curriculum, as Tomasky suggests, in addition to an expanded curriculum in critical thinking and philosophy, which Tomasky does not suggest.
This is a crucial oversight; the teaching of critical thinking and philosophy—which is almost completely absent in high school education—is just as, and probably more so, important than expanding the history curriculum. If you are susceptible to manipulation, and lack the requisite skeptical thinking skills, then no amount of factual information will protect you from the people who want to manipulate you.
Finally, Tomasky suggests, in terms of political approach, that the left stop turning into the right (and providing ammunition to the right in the form of political correctness, speech codes, and violent acts) and that business leaders start prioritizing something other than short-term profit.
I can find little to criticize about Tomasky’s suggestions (although I would have added a section on expanding critical and skeptical thinking education in high schools), but the real question is if any of these changes will ever be implemented. In that regard, we should keep one fact in mind. As Tomasky notes, political change always follows social change. That means if we really want less divisive politics, we have to demand it, and start organizing around the changes that will lead to greater cooperation, more dialogue, and eventually less polarized political behavior.