No matter which party you identify with, it is hard to argue that the American political system is functioning particularly well. The United States has been deemed a “backsliding democracy” by Europe’s International Institute for Democracy and a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the system. Our political parties seem to be more divided than ever and actual progress appears all but impossible. This begs the question: how do we overcome polarization and pursue progress?
First, we must understand the roots of our political polarization. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main ones is the increase in the number of “safe seats” in Congress. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the large number of safe seats in House Elections “pushes candidates to cater to the views of extreme partisans” rather than representing the views of their average constituent. As Democrat and Republican strongholds spring up across the United States, candidates for the House of Representatives feel less of a need to present middle-ground views to win the votes of their constituents. In areas where there are safe seats, candidates really only need to get through their primaries to get to Congress; this allows candidates with extreme views to be more easily elected into positions of power. The increases in numbers of “safe seats” and safe states can produce a political environment that encourages extremism, stifles bipartisanship, and puts undue emphasis on winning swing states or swing districts.
While safe seats alter the election strategies of both Democrats and Republicans, the two parties are being affected by their presence very differently. Pew Research Center recently analyzed the political ideologies of all members of Congress and found that Republicans have moved considerably farther right than Democrats have moved left in the last couple of decades. The growing popularity of far-right politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Jim Jordan reflects this trend and perfectly illustrates the fears of the Carnegie researchers. Political extremism is dangerous for American democracy because it threatens to prohibit progress and fracture our federal government along party lines. Since 2004, the gaps between the least liberal Democrat and the least conservative Republican have widened and our two parties are now farther apart than they have been at any point in the past 50 years . Both of these realities make it more difficult to find common ground and pursue progress. Should these divides persist, it will become even more important to avoid political gridlock and ensure that our federal government works for the people.
To overcome political polarization, we first must open discussion between Democrats and Republicans through bipartisan legislation. In the past two years, some of the most meaningful laws that the Biden Administration passed—his infrastructure bill, the post-Uvalde gun safety bill, the CHIPS Act, and the PACT Act—were with bipartisan support. Though these bills did not pass everything Biden and the Democrats were hoping for, they are still perfect examples of how a fiercely divided Congress can move forward. Next, we must end gerrymandering and create districts so they reflect the demographics of the people living there, not so that they promote the election of a certain party’s candidate. Our elections can be used to get a diverse group of lawmakers to Capitol Hill, but we can only do that if we draw Congressional districts fairly. Gerrymandering threatens the integrity of our elections and especially with our current political climate, creating trust in our democracy is a goal worth pursuing. Finally, we must create more competitive elections. Manipulation of Congressional districts often gives certain groups disproportionate power and creates elections that seem predetermined.
People will be more likely to get to the polls if they believe that elections are competitive and that their vote matters. Getting more people voting means that a more diverse range of views will be heard in our elections. This can allow us to combat polarization and elect representatives that are less extreme. In all, through bipartisan legislation and eliminating gerrymandering, we can ensure that our elections reflect the will of the people and allow for meaningful legislation to be enacted in Washington. Through reform, we can force politicians to represent the views of a diverse group of constituents, fight polarization, and create a government that works for all Americans. While simply changing a couple of things will not end division in American politics, it is imperative that we try to address the shortcomings of our political system. We need to take a serious look at which individuals in Washington threaten our democracy and protect our government from them. Polarization is so dangerous because it creates an environment where politicians normally labeled as fringe or extreme—such as those in the Freedom Caucus—have disproportionate power to influence our federal government and decide policy for the entire country. The good news is, Americans agree on far more than we realize which means that even though our parties are divided, most Americans are not. Combating political polarization in our country seems like a challenging task, but we have to start somewhere—our democracy is worth fighting for.