We’ve reached a bizarre moment in our national politics: Proposals with broad-based appeal may be more likely to stall out than polarizing proposals that divide the country.
This is counterintuitive, of course. In a democratic system, ideas with broad public appeal should thrive. But Americans aren’t merely divided; they’ve embraced division as a guiding ethos and placed it ahead of formerly desired policy aims. It’s us and them, and anything that threatens our tribal delineations is ignored or becomes a target for destruction.
Remember the Dreamers? A year ago, the Hill reported that “a strong majority of voters—including most Republicans—support a pathway to citizenship for ‘Dreamers,’ immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, a new poll finds.” So, what happened? Did congressional Democrats and Republicans work together to craft a policy that both parties support? Hardly. It’s a year later, and there’s still no pathway. Too few Americans want consensus when there’s a chance that they can conquer instead.
To conquer, you need a polarizing issue that you can force upon your opponents—you need the wall. If Republican border hawks make the U.S.-Mexico border wall a reality, they will have crushed the Democrats and conquered. Similarly, if Democrats can block construction of the wall, they will have conquered the Republicans. Zero-sum—that’s where the action is.
On the left, to agree with a Republican on anything is to sanction the horror of Donald Trump. On the right, to agree with a Democrat is to reveal your squishy progressive innards. (Recall how John McCain, a conservative giant, was branded a liberal for occasionally seeking cross-party accommodation.) And for both sides, supposed political compromise is merely how the establishment dresses up its disregard for the American people. These suspicions lend our zero-sum politics the appearance of righteousness. But there’s nothing righteous in foreclosing the possibility of sound legislation.
Yesterday, in advance of Donald Trump’s televised speech about border security, the New York Times reported that the president would “try to use a broad-based public appeal to raise the pressure” on Democrats who oppose the wall. In fact, that’s mostly what he did. Trump pointed out that prominent Democrats once supported the idea of a physical barrier at the border and he stressed the need for improved humanitarian treatment of migrants. And perhaps that’s why the speech was such a dud. A broad-based appeal is not only uncharacteristic of Trump; it’s out of step with the times. We come to political events in hopes of a dramatic blowout, not an understanding.
Going forward, this means more extreme stances, more shutdowns, and fewer principled positions. It also means our politics will become ever more unserious. In staking out absolutist positions, politicians can find themselves in preposterous terrain. And when Americans rally in support of these positions, they make themselves hostages to farce. Meanwhile, policies on which Americans might agree wither for lack of interest. Like the Dreamers, we could all use a path forward.