The 116th Congress has passed just 193 bills into law. While Congress still has a few months left in its current term, these numbers pale in comparison to the numbers of the past. Congress has turned into a body where the opposing parties enjoy stifling and shutting down the opposition’s legislation; Senator Mitch McConnell takes pride in the moniker “Grim Reaper,” a reference to his propensity for axing bills passed in the House and leaving them to die in the Senate. And while much of the blame can — and has — been laid at Senator McConnell’s feet, the Democratic Party is not exempt. As Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin noted, “One party wins and we only govern for half of America; then the next party wins and they only govern for half of America … We have a stalemated government that can’t do anything.”
The polarization in our government is at extreme highs, and our country reflects that. Svolik and Graham explain in “Democracy in America?” that political polarization typically falls into three categories: elite, public, and ideological . Elite polarization refers to party polarization, specifically, the polarization of politicians, legislators, and legislative agenda. As Lieberman argues, in “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy,” polarization begets division which begets polarization ; thus, the failings of Congress to legislate and act has resulted in a fractured society that has forfeited the ideal of compromise as duty and embraced obstruction as result. The current state of politics in the United States rewards obstinance.
I believe the only way to combat the polarization that has paralyzed our nation is through a reintroduction of political realism and transactional politics. Local transactionalism offers a bottom-up solution to a top-down problem. In a paper published by the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Rauch describes political realism and transactionalism as an understanding of the difficulties of government and the incrementalism and equilibriums necessary for the political peace and stability society treasures . Yet, as he describes, modern politicos of all stripes have attacked political transactionalism as, at best, a necessary evil and more often as corrupt and illegitimate. The combined demonization of pork-barrel politics and compromise has left a legislative body that has no incentive to work together, and this polarization has resulted in legislators loyal to their own individual cause rather than to the cause of governance.
A return to transactional realism is the way to combat this. Transactions and compromise lead to conversations with people of different views and beliefs. It is the way, as Rauch states, social mediation occurs. Only by confronting and actively engaging with our differences can political compromise be achieved, and only with compromise can progress be made and, more importantly, implemented.
It is without question that some of the transactional systems of politics in the United States of past were tainted by corruption. But it is more important to understand that the people on the other side of issues largely have legitimate reasons for their positions, and a system in which nothing gets accomplished leaves no one satisfied. Rauch recounts a situation in Utah where “leaders of the gay community, of the Mormon Church, and of the Republican dominated state legislature went behind closed doors for several weeks to negotiate in secret.” Eventually, the different parties emerged and revealed a proposal that extended “antidiscrimination protections, for the first time, to gay, lesbian, and transgender Utahans, coupled with religious conscience exemptions for the faithful.” The members of that conference had reached a consensus via transaction: the LGBTQ+ community gained protections in exchange for provisions protecting employees from being fired for their non-harassing, non-work-related speech about morals or politics.
This result did not leave everyone happy, but it did build a consensus. The transactional system had brought people together to negotiate and discuss, it built relationships between different groups and organizations, and it resulted in progress. I believe that this is the way to combat the polarization that has our country in a chokehold. Only by actively and respectfully engaging with one another can we hope to move forward, together. A system of politics where we do not dismiss serious concerns and beliefs of our neighbors results in compromise, action, and governance. Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik. “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States.” American Political Science Review. 2020  Robert Lieberman et al. “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis.” Perspective on Politics. 2019.  Jonathan Rauch. “Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-room Deals can Strengthen American Democracy.” Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings. 2015.