October 5, 2018

If We Want an Effective Congress, We Need to Reduce Our Tribalism

Pres. Wilson reading message on tariff to Congress, 4/9/13  (LOC)
Many Americans say they wish Congress would get something done. They complain about the gridlock and how it seems like constant infighting prevents Congress from accomplishing much of anything. In poll after poll, they make it clear that they do not approve of the job Congress is doing.

In a divided and highly polarized Congress, what does it take to get things done? At a minimum, it takes bipartisanship, a willingness to compromise, and the desire to set aside political tribalism in order to "work across the aisle." It is uncommon for either party to control enough seats that they could completely steamroll the other party. For our members of Congress to govern effectively, they need to be able to overcome their differences and work together for the good of our country. This does not mean they cannot disagree; it means they need to be willing to work with those with whom they disagree.

The reason this rarely happens is that not enough reasonable people vote in primary elections, and those who do vote in primary elections punish politicians for compromising, working across the aisle, and other evidence of bipartisanship. It is bad enough that the requirements of effective governance are not rewarded. The real problem is that those who meet these requirements are often punished for doing so. Too many primary voters promote tribalism through inflexible litmus tests. There are too few reasonable voices to counter their influence.

I'm not going to suggest that anyone refrain from complaining about Congress. I recognize that it has become a national pass time. I will, however, suggest that we have the Congress we deserve. If we are not willing to overcome our own tribalism, we cannot be surprised that our Congress reflects it. If we are not willing to reward bipartisanship and compromise on the part of our elected officials, we should not be shocked that we see so little of it. If we are not willing to vote in our primary elections, we have to recognize that many of those who do vote are actively promoting tribalism and maintaining the state of gridlock about which we love to complain.

To make a real difference and improve how our government works, we would do well to balance our focus on winning with one on reducing the toxic effects of tribalism. Yes, we would all like to see the political party we prefer to have more power than they do. There is nothing wrong with that desire. At the same time, we need to recognize that governing is supposed to be a very different thing from campaigning. It does not work when we demand that our elected officials refuse to compromise or work with those with whom we disagree. If we want a better functioning government, we need to accept some responsibility.