The divide between Republicans and Democrats is worse than it has ever been. The Pew Research Center found that more than three-quarters of Americans polled cited “control of Congress by their party” as a major factor in their 2018 midterm ballots. The U.S. Congress has always been a raucous forum, but now gridlock and grandstanding obstructs productive legislation and undermines the credibility of the institution. American democracy is not in great shape.
An antidote exists for this problem. American voters need to bring back liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. As heretical as that may seem in today’s political battleground, it used to be a normative feature in Congress. The New Deal era in the 1930s stitched together an alliance between liberal Republicans and liberal Democrats, who coalesced around issues like employment and welfare programs. This coalition endured the turbulence of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and persisted well into the 1970s.
The so-called Rockefeller Republicans of the 1950s pursued government projects in environmentalism, health care and education. Figures like George Romney and Prescott Bush, both patriarchs of American political dynasties, openly endorsed government ideals that would destroy a Republican’s candidacy today. Bush even worked as a treasurer for Planned Parenthood in the 1940s. President Eisenhower worked with his fellow Republicans in Congress to sustain a period of enormous federal spending on interstate highways coupled with high taxes on wealthy Americans.
By contrast, conservative Democrats used to resist the federal government in a variety of ways. Southern Democrats ran on segregationist and states’ rights platforms for most of that party’s history until its major realignment after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Even after that, Democrats like President Carter emphasized faith-based politics and distrusted labor unions. Many Democrats jumped on the “tough-on-crime” bandwagon with President Clinton and passed a massive crime bill in 1994 that expanded the death penalty and broadened the power of law enforcement.
Not everything that liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats did was good. But it was meaningful that American democracy had more to do with candidates and policies than party affiliation. Candidates could be judged on personal merits. A leader’s progress could be measured on how well they stitch together coalitions rather than how well they beat down the enemy.
This is why my proposal requires a reorientation in voters’ psyche. Mud-slinging has become so ingrained in our perceptions of politics that fixing American democracy appears daunting. It is still possible, though. To start, the concept of bipartisanship needs to understood as a sacrifice of both sides for a mutual outcome. While everyone agrees with this in principle, the Pew research suggests that they do not agree with it in practice. Voters treat bipartisanship as a situation where the opposing side makes sacrifices while their own side remains consistent with values. This misconception is caused by the fact that partisans view their own camp as the “normal” and the other camp as “obstructionists.” Additionally, puritanical labels like Republican in Name Only, or RINO, need to cease from use.
If voters change their psyche, then U.S. politics can start to yield benefits from the election of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. One of these benefits includes the quality of legislation. Imagine a hypothetical bicameral legislature with a Democrat majority in the house and a Republican majority in the senate. If conservative Democrats are working alongside liberal Democrats, then the legislation produced is more likely to have conservative or centrist elements. It is then more likely to be agreeable to Republicans when it goes to a floor vote in the other chamber. This decreases the likelihood of defeatist bills, which one party passes with the full understanding that it will never pass in the other chamber.
Another benefit is a renewed emphasis on coalition building and leadership. Moderates and extremes working alongside each other in the same party will not be amiable all the time. Miniature splinter parties will form. This presents a better opportunity for leaders to build coalitions to govern, similar to how some European parliaments work. No longer will U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have to threaten or bribe two rebellious Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. The ideal outcome is where he’d have to cater to an entire faction of moderates supporting those two.
There will be instances where leaders cannot form coalitions, either because of their own ineptitude or the stubbornness of splinter parties. That simply reveals to voters that the party in question, Republican or Democrat, is incapable of governing and power ought to be shifted to the other.
This proposal attempts to delineate Republicans and Democrats as umbrella terms rather than puritanical parties in eternal conflict with each other. Under each umbrella should exist an assortment of factions and splinter parties that leaders must tolerate and appease. In addition to better governance, this proposal seeks to build trust and respect among voters. The opposing umbrella party is less terrifying because some politicians within it hold your own beliefs. If history can provide any lesson for fixing gridlock, then our own history of having liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats may be the key.