ON Friday, Republican senators voted not to proceed on a motion to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Despite Republicans getting all the compromises they asked for, only six voted to proceed on the motion, and those six risked their standing in their party and their future by voting for something that was seen as bipartisan.
Still, it is no surprise that only six voted, as they were forced to act in contrast to all political incentives and to their own personal well-being. The political system that we have incentivizes division and conflict. The forces that act against bipartisanship are powerful, and especially so within the Republican party.
If Democrats truly want to work with Republicans, they need to address these forces directly.
What are the factors that devalue bipartisanship?
First, gerrymandering has created hyper-partisan districts. In these districts, the competition is not between Democrat or Republican, but rather a contest for who can be most ideologically appealing. A moderate politician who is known for working with those from the other side will very quickly find themselves in a tough primary contest with someone who is more willing to take an adversarial approach.
Here in West Virginia, the Legislature soon will be entirely constructed of single-member districts, instead of a mix of single-member and multi-member districts. This will serve to increase partisanship even further.
Secondly, the enormous amount of money involved in financing a political campaign increases partisanship. Members of Congress are estimated to spend up to 70% of their time fundraising.
The constant pressure to raise money drives politicians to seek attention, more than to seek collaboration. Freshmen Republicans Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Rep. Margorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., each raised about $3 million in the first quarter alone after their outspoken disputing of the results of the 2020 election. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., raised almost $1 million off of her advertisement where she walks down the streets of D.C. toting a gun.
No fundraising email ever started with “Please chip in $5 so that I can continue to reach across the aisle.” Instead, fundraising is most successful when it sparks outrage schadenfreude among a partisan audience — often with attention-grabbing stunts aimed at trolling the other side.
Political action committees then marry the interests of corporations and think tanks to further reward many of the most partisan actors.
Perhaps one of the biggest disincentives for bipartisanship comes from the partisan media environment — particularly among right-wing media figures. These personalities are known for targeting nonconforming Republicans with vicious attacks. None of these attacks is more effective than those coming from Donald Trump.
Disobedient Republicans are labeled “RINOs” and are doomed as their fundraising dries up and they lose any chance of reelection within highly partisan districts. Even for Republicans who are willing to negotiate in good-faith to find common solutions, the results can be devastating: public shaming, removal of committee assignments, primary challenges, even death threats.
Finally, there are a number of institutional barriers to bipartisanship. In the 1990s, budgets for congressional staff were deeply cut. In a piece titled “The Big Lobotomy,” Washington Monthly wrote: “Much of the research, number crunching and legislative wordsmithing that used to be done by Capitol Hill staffers working for the government is now being done by outside experts, many of them former Hill staffers, working for lobbying firms, think tanks, consultancies, trade associations, and PR outfits.” This has had the effect of pushing much of the work of governing directly into the hands of the most partial and partisan actors.
Lastly, a topic of much attention is the Senate filibuster. This procedural relic has seen a large increase in use in recent years. It aims to give minority voice in policy-making, but it also allows minority members to escape the requirement to stake a position on issues that would be controversial within their own caucus.
In the recent blockage of a motion to create a commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6, there were only six Republicans who voted to proceed with debate. Had a full vote been taken, it is likely the measure would have garnered an additional five to 10 Republican votes. By filibustering legislation, the minority party is able to avoid exactly those issues on which they might find common ground. And, in the absence of meaningful policy-making, political parties instead propose fantasy platforms that are designed to motivate their bases but have little chance of ever becoming law.
These are only some of the factors that actively block Democrats and Republicans from working together. If only six Republicans voted on a motion to investigate something that threatened their own lives, there is little chance of more success on infrastructure or any other policy area.
A firm handshake and spirit of teamwork are no match for the overwhelming financial and political pressures to not work together. It is clear that any true effort at bipartisanship must address these structural deficits in the American political system.
Many of these issues, such as partisan gerrymandering and campaign finance reform, are taken up in the “For the People Act.” Most of the measures contained in the act are popular among Democrat and Republican voters. Others, such as media dominance/consolidation, are more easily dealt with, once the pressures of campaign finance are lifted.
If Democrats are serious about bipartisanship, they must take firm action to break the entrenched interests that keep our government and, indeed, our nation so divided.