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On Sept. 9, 2021, the Fiscal Note Executive Institute partnered with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress to host the virtual discussion, “Saving Bipartisanship in an Age of Extremism: Can the Electoral System Be Designed to Promote Consensus?” The closed-door, interactive program featured insights from former Member of Congress and CSPC President and CEO Glenn Nye; Neal Simon, author of “Contract to Unite America;” Chris Lu, former Deputy Secretary of Labor; Mary Kate Cary, senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center and former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush; and Patricia Villarreal Tamez, Government Relations Advisor with Shell.

The following are key takeaways from the program:

While there is a role for partisan action in politics, hyper-partisanship on both ends of the political spectrum has created dysfunction in the U.S. government.

  • Research shows that hyper-partisanship is not a new phenomenon but one that has been growing for decades.
  • The CPSC found a correlation between polarization and dysfunction in government: as polarization increased, so did the federal debt, the number and length of government shutdowns, and the loss of public faith in governing.
  • Even before the 2020 election cycle, business leaders were voicing their concerns about partisanship and how it has affected U.S. leadership at home and abroad. In an essay published by The Dialogue Project, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon wrote, “Plain and simple, this is a collective failure to put the needs of society ahead of our personal parochial and partisan interests. If we do not fix these problems, America’s moral economic and military dominance may cease to exist.”

The bottom line of the CPSC findings is that hyper-partisanship in the U.S. stems from an “incentive problem” and an electoral system that often overemphasizes our political extremes.

  • Effective government requires some level of bipartisan agreement, but the number of “swing seats” in Congress has decreased in recent years.
  • District maps drawn by political parties are intentionally designed to benefit themselves, often resulting in strongly one-sided districts.
  • In addition, closed primaries with very low participation have resulted in general election candidates being selected by a very small number of the American electorate who prioritize ideology over cooperation. This often places the power in the hands of the most partisan actors, despite the majority of Americans professing to value moderation and problem-solving.
  • The result is a huge disconnect between what it takes to win an election and what it takes to be an effective legislator.
  • Although there is no simple solution, reform could include:
    • Reducing gerrymandering districts through fairer, more independent district drawing processes
    • Opening up the primaries to unaffiliated voters
    • Using a ranked-choice voting system to incentivize candidates to be more focused on a broad set of voters<

The media and the public are attracted to controversy.

  • The American people say they hate partisanship, but they also love to watch TV that reinforces their underlying views.
  • Media outlets that try to remain factual and unbiased have difficulty attracting viewers, which incentivizes networks to focus on political conflict and polarizing voices.
  • The low-key nature of the Biden administration presents an opportunity for the major cable networks to focus more on substantive issues instead of fiery rhetoric. The question is whether the public will be receptive.

The inability to create and maintain trust is hindering our ability to advance public policy.

  • Trust is our most valuable asset, whether you’re working on the Hill as a staffer or trying to advance your position on the corporate side. However, reports from Edelman, Pew, and others continue to show that public trust in government and media is way down, while trust in corporations is up.
  • This has created a unique challenge for businesses as they determine if, when, and how much they should engage in social issues and public policy. Staying silent is no longer an option, but there is also a risk associated with too much engagement.
  • One encouraging sign has been congressional staff organizations (i.e., Women’s Congressional Staff Association) coming together to develop relationships across the aisle.

There have been some bright spots of bipartisan agreement, but a lot more work needs to be done.

  • In August, a large bipartisan majority of the Senate passed a sweeping $1 trillion infrastructure bill, although there are still many steps to go before the bill becomes law.
  • There has also been bipartisan agreement when it comes to combating the rising influence of China and regulating the tech industry.
  • The past year has shown that lawmakers in Washington can come together during times of crisis. Whether providing relief for unemployed workers, jumpstarting the vaccine program, or getting the vaccines out the door, the White House and Congress were able to work effectively to address the pandemic.
  • The real question is whether the U.S. government can put partisanship aside to solve broader, long-term problems. There needs to be a more stable, effective, and sustainable method for making policy.

Business leaders have a role to play in helping to reduce partisanship.

  • Corporations should strongly consider stepping up and taking a proactive stance on long-term election systems reform, rather than trying to respond to each and every partisan election law proposal.
  • There are a few key ways business leaders can proactively promote long-term systemic reforms:
    • Design electoral systems to promote basic cooperation
    • Remain agnostic to who wins elections but biased on how elected officials behave in office
    • Create alignment of incentive where elected officials can act responsibly and win re-election
    • Host bipartisan, data-driven discussions that bring parties together, in a good faith effort to end the current scorched-earth warfare over election rules, and encourage cooperation on some broadly agreed best practices

Related Resources:

“Political Reform: Systemic Drivers of Dysfunction,” a presentation by CSPC CEO and former Member of Congress Glenn Nye

“Corporate America’s Moral Responsibility,” Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, The Dialogue Project

Assessing Companies’ Roles in Corporate Activism,” FNEI Executive Summary, May 24, 2021