Historically in the US, high levels of polarization permeate national politics and Congress – reflecting the sorting of voters and elites into the ideologically consistent two-party intensity of competition at the national level. While some cast doubt on the conclusion that polarization complicates lawmaking, many argue that the phenomenon holds.
Election campaigns, as well as the policymaking process in the US, tend to be increasingly dominated by negative messages about political opponents. Also known as blame-generating politics, this negative messaging results in policy stalemate. Since people are more sensitive to losses than equivalent gains, and also tend to take heed of negative information more than positive information, negative messaging becomes very attractive to politicians.
In recent years, negative messaging has exacerbated competitive elections, political polarization, increased fiscal stress, and changes in campaign practice and law. The good news is that the No Labels organization has been founded to build a bi-partisan governing coalition while combating partisan political dysfunction. This has seen politicians deploy strategies that allow them to maneuver around the ‘blame trap’ to avoid policy deadlocks.
How political polarization and deadlock run in tandem
Firstly, the US political system requires bipartisan, broad coalitions to execute major policy changes. These coalitions are easily built when a significant number of legislators converge in a political center to bridge ideological and partisan divisions.
Secondly, when activist constituencies and elites polarize, parties have a lesser incentive to compromise due to the electoral incentives that distinguish their positions and records. Even when there are no ideological sweet spots to link the parties, legislative deals are possible with incentive grants. However, as witnessed at the peak of the recent political season, the psychology of voting behavior contributes to polarization and partisanship. Rather than negotiating, parties become more encouraged to fight messaging wars.
Instead of settling for half, polarization encourages deadlocks among parties while holding out for the whole loaf – unless the parties fear public blame. To avoid blocking popular measures, lawmakers should put learning legislation measures high on their to-do list – otherwise, legislating in such polarized times could mean hardly legislating at all.
Breaking the stalemate
Negotiating can be an intense exercise, but also an art in patience – and more so in the presence of a legislative/political stalemate. You have to see the total picture, look at the complete overview, get a grip of how the given deadlock came to be, and understand the backgrounds of both parties. Finally, create a strategy that will hopefully allow both parties to win in the end, but not a solution that provides a successful outcome for one side.
In a political environment that is dominated by negative messaging, there are many strategic options for avoiding policy stalemates. While none of the solutions is suitable for all situations, they collectively offer some important opportunities for avoiding policy stalemates. This kind of liberal politics has been proven to offer peace of mind and strong health.
Here are some options that can be employed to break lawmaking stalemates:
- Passing the buck: Passing the buck to non-elected bodies (such as temporary commissions) is a fast strategy that can be used by politicians to avoid the blame trap. In this case, deals are reached behind closed doors without the pressure to defend or stake out ideological and partisan positions.
- Autopilot government: Setting up a procedure that creates automatic program adjustments is another strategy for overcoming difficult decisions. Unless Congress agrees to overturn it, the formula set up in legislation works on reaching some trigger such as Social Security deficits or deficit levels.
- Come up with grand deals: Negotiations by Republican and Democratic leaders behind closed doors are strategies that can help in passing the buck while trying to strike a grand deal on issues such as taxes, immigration and budgets. Rank-and-file legislators can then sell this to the public as the best achievable deal.
- Feet to the fire strategy: Similar to the autopilot strategy, policymakers can set up automatic mechanisms to trigger painful policy changes without the trigger being pulled by the politicians themselves.
- Executive action: If a divided and hyper-partisan Congress fails to break policy stalemates, an executive action can offer an alternative. Certainly, stalemates can be resolved through executive orders, as President Barack Obama did when he shielded illegal immigrants from deportation.
- Using experimental approaches: Before making firm choices at the national level, different approaches can be tried out on some policy issues where parties are divided. This can be executed in many different ways – one is to give more experimental authority to localities and states to try out new policy options instead of having a uniform national policy.
While all of these strategies have distinctive advantages, there are also risks and limitations attached to them. If appropriate action isn’t taken soon, then policy stalemates and blame-generating politics are likely to be the ‘new normal’ in the American political realm.
Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash