Likewise, some people acknowledge polarization as a problem, but blame it on an electorate that prefers a divided government, split between the parties. All I can say is that divided government in the past — think Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill — didn’t keep Congress from creatively addressing national challenges. Divided government is not easy, but it is not unusual and it can work.
Politicians don’t deserve all the blame. Voters share responsibility: More people have to turn out to vote. The more people who vote, the better the chances to strengthen the political center — that is, moderates and pragmatists. That’s because low turnout brings out the most ideologically intense voters, who in turn reward the most polarizing candidates. A Congress more representative of the American people rests on expanding efforts to convince people to vote, and beating back the barriers to voting.
The second solution lies with members of Congress. Contemplating a government shutdown, a Kentucky congressman recently explained his stance by saying, “All that really matters is what my district wants.” This is not an uncommon view, but it’s a distressingly limited one. Our system depends on members who believe it’s also their responsibility to lead and inform voters, who are willing to weigh the national interest as well as parochial concerns and who have confidence in our system to resolve political differences.
In other words, we need members of Congress devoted to making the system work. We need men and women in office who understand that when the voters give us a divided government, they have no choice but to accept the distribution of power and work with it, regardless of what they wish were the case. We need legislators who realize that those on the other side feel just as passionately and deserve their respect, and who are committed to finding a solution to our problems.