Whether the frame of reference is North Carolina or the nation as a whole, no one can dispute the fact that there is a partisan divide — and that it has been growing.
If you look at public opinion surveys over time, you will find that the median Democratic voter is more progressive than in the past, the median Republican voter is more conservative, and thus the divide between those two medians is quite large by historical standards. However, when you move past this obvious fact of political topography, disputes arise.
For example, what is the cause of the partisan divide? Nationally, Republicans blame Democrats for a radicalization that began in the 1960s. Democrats blame Republicans for a radicalization that began in the 1980s. Because most journalists, professors, and other “experts” are of the Left or deferential to it, the conventional wisdom tends to reflect the Democratic narrative. It offers a version of political history in which Republicans tend to be acceptable and sensible to the extent they become safely retired or deceased. In response, the conservative counterculture has created its own narratives — some serving as a necessary corrective, others fanciful and debilitating.
Here’s another question: Has the polarization been a net negative or a net plus? You may think the question answers itself. But speaking as a conservative, I would observe that complaints about a lack of bipartisanship are far more common when progressives are out of power. Recent history appears to suggest that Republicans do better when there is more brand differentiation, while Democrats do better when the party lines are fuzzier. If you want to chase suspicious conservatives away from your dialogue, cite the enactment of policies they favor as proof that we have too much partisanship.
All that having been said, I do indeed believe in bridging the partisan divide. For one thing, our discourse has become coarse, often even revolting. There is a difference between arguing and bickering, between a frank and productive exchange of alternative views and the political equivalent of the World Wrestling Federation.
For another thing, legislating needs to be about more than 51 percent of the elected officials getting 100 percent of their way. You can dislike a bill and still have something constructive to say about it, something its proponents might benefit from hearing and acting on. Also, and this point was made many times by conservatives in 2009 and 2010, it is unwise to enact major changes in public policy such as the Affordable Care Act without any buy-in at all from some members of the other party. All successful political leaders negotiate the details of legislation in search of larger margins of support.
When it comes to building more bridges, I have two engineering suggestions. First, understand your task. You are not trying to put hooks on each bank of the river and then yank them together. That’s impossible. You are not Paul Bunyan. You are building a bridge across a divide that will continue to exist, because we have different opinions and an electoral system that inevitably pushes opinionated people into roughly two competing coalitions.
Second, while you have every right to believe that the right bank of the river is better than the left bank, or vice versa, try not to be so obnoxious about it. Understand that others probably see things differently from you not because they are evil or stupid, but because they possess a different set of facts, experiences, assumptions, and values.
There is a natural temptation to define bipartisanship as “when those ignorant fools in the other party finally do the right thing.” Resist that temptation. In a political climate more civil than the one we have now, in which Democrats and Republicans have more productive discussions about their differences, you will still be routinely disappointed with outcomes. Government will do things you don’t agree with, or even find abhorrent. If you refuse to live in that world, then I respectfully observe you seek not bipartisan realism but partisan fantasy.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.