Congress is in full-on chaos mode right now, with the future of infrastructure, government funding, the debt limit and voting rights all uncertain. But at the heart of the chaos is a core disagreement over a basic tenet of governing: Is bipartisanship still possible?
Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema certainly both think it is. They are so strong in their commitment to working across party lines that they stand alone among Democratic senators in objecting to changing the filibuster.
But they are lone voices for a reason: The political environment most senators inhabit makes public bipartisanship anywhere from difficult to politically suicidal. This is for a variety of reasons, including that so much of our politics is now nationalized, that party leaders keep most potential “bipartisan” bills from reaching the floor and, perhaps most importantly, that the national parties are now geographically isolated, meaning there’s minimal overlap in the interests and values the parties represent.
This is, of course, not limited to the Senate, but for the purposes of this article, I’m focusing primarily on how bipartisanship has largely disappeared from the Senate, as that’s historically where more bipartisanship has taken place.
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To understand why a senator like Manchin is such a strong and singular proponent of bipartisanship, it helps to understand just how rare a senator like him is. He is one of just six senators who represent a state that voted for the other party in the most recent presidential election — and one of just two senators whose state voted for the other party’s presidential nominee by at least 10 points in 2020.1
There were once plenty of senators who represented states that voted for the other party for president. Between 1960 and 1990, roughly half of all sitting senators fit into this group. But over the last three decades, that number has plummeted, as the chart above shows.
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Likewise, in an earlier political era, many senators shared their state with a senator from the opposite party. Not only did this serve to reinforce the electoral reality that either party could win a state, but it also gave such senators an obvious bipartisan partner in the Senate, particularly on issues of concern to their home state. Today, though, only 12 senators — the six senators mentioned above, plus the fellow senator in their state2 — have a colleague who’s from the other party.
So, what changed? Well, pretty much the entire nature of American electoral party politics.
One way to clearly see this change is to map American partisan competition. From the 1960s through the early 2000s, both Democrats and Republicans were genuinely national parties in the Senate. That is, Senate Democrats and Republicans used to hail from all parts of the country.
This was important because it kept both parties politically diverse and thus moderate overall. Moreover, because Senate elections were more about local issues, both parties were able to compete nationally. Voters didn’t care as much whether they sent a Democrat or a Republican to Washington. What mattered was whether they sent somebody who could represent their state well. And senators could prove their worth by bringing home federal funding for roads and bridges — just the kind of issue that used to facilitate bipartisan dealmaking.
But today’s political campaigns and voters care far less about roads and bridges. They care far more about national culture-war issues — and which party controls the majority in Congress. As a result, Democrats can’t win in much of the Southeast and the Mountain West, and Republicans are now perpetual losers in the West and the Northeast. Only the Southwest and the Midwest remain competitive, and that’s only because state populations are currently balanced between liberal cities and conservative exurbs.
It’s also why bipartisanship in the Senate is waning. Republican senators in solidly Republican states do not have to worry about winning over some Democrats; the senators’ general election win is all but assured. Rather, the most likely way they could lose is if they face a primary challenge to their right. And the most likely way they could draw such a challenger is if they were to publicly work with Democrats.
In other words, a bipartisan record has become a liability in today’s electoral environment.
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Even in competitive states, a bipartisan record is no guarantee of electoral success. Take former Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado. His attempt to prove his bipartisan bona fides in his reelection bid in 2020 ultimately proved no match for a state that is continuing to trend blue. And we saw the same fate recently befall three Democratic senators of increasingly red states: Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill. All were sunk in 2018 by the “D” attached to their name.
Swing states (and swing districts) also don’t have more swing voters than anywhere else; in fact, they might have fewer, since many swing states are only swingy because their populations are evenly balanced between very liberal cities and very conservative exurbs. Consider Georgia: Despite a closely contested runoff for both of the state’s Senate races, none of the candidates really tried to run to the middle. It’s a similar story in Wisconsin. It’s unclear yet whether Republican Sen. Ron Johnson will run for reelection in 2022, but if he does, he has also chosen to double down on his party’s strategy (embracing former President Trump) versus trying to persuade voters in the middle — even though Wisconsin voted for Biden in 2020 (albeit narrowly). More broadly, the electoral penalty for extremism has declined considerably in recent years, as the political middle has become a muddled vacuum.
But even for senators who want to publicly prove their bipartisan bona fides, the problem is that party leaders like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell prefer votes that draw sharp contrasts between the two parties. Divisive partisan politics help with campaign fundraising in an era of increasingly ideological donors (both big and small). And high-stakes elections mobilize and excite voters. Bipartisanship, in contrast, muddles the stakes and blurs the lines. What about infrastructure, you say? After all, that is the one big-ticket issue this year where there has been at least some very public bipartisanship. Is West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, right when she says, “What you see is when we work together and really put the nose to the grindstone, we can get bipartisan support to move forward. That’s what the bipartisan group did, so I think it blunts the argument on the filibuster”?
Of course, if there were ever an issue where Congress should be able to be bipartisan, it would be an issue like infrastructure. In the good old days of bipartisanship, infrastructure would have been an easy bipartisan win; every senator would get some money to spend on their state’s roads and bridges, thus allowing them to tout their home-state spending for their next reelection. Big appropriations bills, stuffed full of earmarks, have long been a path to bipartisan agreement.
And yet, for four years, the perpetual joke in Washington was that it was always “infrastructure week.” Certainly, Biden worked harder than Trump to foster a bipartisan deal. But arguably, it was the Democrats’ threat of eliminating the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation that pushed McConnell into supporting a bipartisan agreement in a way that bolstered Sinema and Manchin’s faith in bipartisanship. This is hardly a sustainable formula for bipartisan dealmaking on major issues.
To be sure, Congress can still accomplish some lower-profile bipartisan lawmaking (like a recent major upgrade of our drinking-water and wastewater systems) through what Matthew Yglesias and Simon Bazelon have dubbed “Secret Congress.” It turns out that members of Congress can still work across party lines when issues are relatively noncontroversial and there is not much media attention.
Indeed, if you look beyond the partisan media’s name-calling, you can find surprising amounts of bipartisan activity, as political scientist Laurel Harbridge-Yong showed in her 2015 book “Is Bipartisanship Dead?” The same is true in a more recent working paper by Harbridge-Yong and fellow political scientists Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman. They found that lawmakers who cosponsor more bipartisan bills are more effective in passing legislation.
But “Secret Congress” works only because it’s secret, and it’s secret only because the issues are not high-profile enough to draw the public spotlight. But if the only bipartisanship that happens in Congress happens on uncontroversial one-off issues, this leaves the most important issues of the day to wither on the shoals of a 60-vote threshold in the Senate or, more commonly, in the gridlock of a divided government.
Of course, most Americans are sick of all the partisan fighting in Washington. They are, in one widely cited phrasing, part of the “exhausted majority” — i.e., the two-thirds of Americans who are “fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society.” Most Americans also say they want compromise and bipartisanship, though that desire for compromise is conditional — most Americans still prefer that their party win.
Still, partisans are the most hostile to compromise — especially those individuals whose racial, religious and cultural identities line up most strongly with one party. But the partisan sorting that has aligned these identities so closely with one party over the last several decades is precisely the reason why voters have come down so hard on politicians who compromise. The more that national political conflict is centered on abstract moral issues and the identity of the nation, the more any compromise feels like a surrender.
To recreate the conditions that allowed bipartisanship to flourish in the Senate once upon a time seems unlikely anytime soon. Instead, the most bipartisan-oriented senators are the most endangered. Manchin is a dying breed. His eventual replacement in West Virginia will almost certainly be a Republican.
There may also be moments when the incentives align to navigate an occasional bipartisan deal that can get 60 votes in the Senate, especially on issues that are less covered and therefore lower-profile. But more likely is that the rewards for demonstrating party loyalty will remain stronger than the rewards for trying to be bipartisan, and that the disagreements dividing Republicans and Democrats will stay centered on issues like immigration, democracy and racial justice, where compromise is all but impossible in a binary politics system defined by these conflicts. Certainly, a few senators may still value bipartisanship for intrinsic reasons. But when almost all the structural political pressures are stacked against bipartisanship, American politics — and especially the Senate — will remain stuck for the foreseeable future.