Congress’s capacity to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities as the First Branch of government of government has declined considerably over the last several decades, and is reaching a crisis point. New America has joined forces with the R Street Institute to form the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group, which convenes a bipartisan group of reformers inside and outside of Congress to develop ideas and build community around improving congressional capacity, building momentum for a congressional reform effort. New America also convened a group of political scientists to develop a deeper and broader case for re-building congressional capacity, and to help develop ideas and expertise to feed into a potential future congressional reform effort. In the Trump administration, a vibrant First Branch of government has become much more important. In our system of checks and balances, Congress stands as the institutional check on the many potential overreaches of executive power that a Trump administration could abuse. The case for strengthening Congress has never been more important.
The new political alignments emerging after the election will create opportunities for new and existing “transpartisan” partnerships, which cross party lines outside the leadership of party elites and challenge gridlock at the local and national level. New America has been studying what makes these coalitions succeed for fail for several years. Last year we produced a practitioners’ handbook, reviewing the lessons of four case studies and identifying tactics and qualities that equip leaders for a world in which policy advocacy must cross partisan, cultural, professional and other divides to build coalitions for progress. We partnered with the Stanley Foundation to hold a series of invitation-only workshops looking globally at how partnerships that pull business and civil society into global governance are tackling polarization.
In the wake of the 2016 elections, the project looked prescient. We have begun ground-breaking dialogues on how cross-party divides will reshape trade and security policy in the years ahead, pulling together unprecedented coalitions of experts and advocates both apolitical and with strong associations on the left, center, and neo-conservative and libertarian right -- in many cases, individuals who work on the same policy issues but have never met. Through research, convenings and writing we will document the shapes that political realignment is taking, identify policy-level overlaps that can transcend polarization, and offer our unique networking capacities to be a place where policy entrepreneurs meet, hear new ideas, and form relationships. In addition, New Models is now advising half a dozen foundations and funder affinity groups, on a one-time or ongoing basis -- providing a unique opportunity to put the range of Political Reform program insights into the hands of decision-makers who shape the field.
Race, Identity, and Political Realignment
In 2016, race and identity became the central fissure in American politics This poses a major risk to our democracy. Identity politics is not like other politics. It is divisive at its core. It is about us-versus-them. It is fundamentally zero-sum. And if it is allowed to flourish, it will undermine the shared sense of legitimacy and purpose that a democracy requires. These conflicts are likely to continue to worsen in the years ahead. The Trump administration’s cabinet picks demonstrate a hard-right turn on issues of race, identity, and immigration. And as several commentators have noted, we should expect Trump to turn to these divisive issues if he can’t deliver on his economic promises or his popularity fails otherwise.
Unlike others who work on racial politics, we view identity politics from structural perspective. Politics involves many issues, across multiple dimensions. But in a two-party system like the one we have in America, there can really only be one primary dividing conflict at any given time, since there are only two parties. The consequence is that our two parties must exist as broad big-tent coalitions, cobbling together a variety of disparate groups and interests into one coherent framework. In a nation as large and diverse as the United States, this is no easy task. It requires a delicate balancing act and careful messaging. And the bigger the party gets, the harder it is to keep all the different groups and factions satisfied. At this moment, identity politics is now the glue that holds the two party coalitions together. That’s because both parties are divided internally by class. To raise money, they need to appeal to their wealthiest supporters, which often means championing economic policies most of their voters disagree with. To distract voters from this disconnect, party leaders are left with only one option: identity politics.
This current alignment is also the consequence of a 50-year shift in party coalitions in American politics, in which non-college educated whites most prone to white identity politics came to nest fully in the Republican Party, and in which minorities and college-educated whites most supportive of diversity came to nest fully in the Democratic Party. Viewing this from a structural perspective helps us to understand that there are both strong incentives that party leaders have to maintain identity-based politics, and long-term historical trends that cannot be easily unwound. This is not a matter of more civil discourse. It is a matter of structural political incentives and demographics.
To solve this problem, then, we need to look closely at the forces pushing to stoke identity politics. Our initial thinkings suggests that this will have to involve pushing politics towards either more internally diverse parties, or towards more parties. Right now, we believe a majority of Americans don’t want politics to be about identity. But that majority is split between the two parties, and therefore held captive by the two parties. Solving this problem, therefore, leads us to solutions that undermine the need for parties to hold together around identity. This will require some hard thinking.
Today our institutions are unable to generate solutions to pervasive public problems; they are too weak to hold politicians accountable, and too easily subverted by interest group influence. In the face of these various forms of democratic distrust and dysfunction, it is no wonder that democratic institutions suffer from a “democratic deficit” of declining trust; the bond between these institutions and ordinary citizens has weakened precipitously.
But we also live in a moment of surprisingly diverse and energetic efforts to revitalize our democracy. First, the rise of digital tools, including nearly ubiquitous mobile penetration rates across all demographics in the United States, creates new opportunities for civic networks and collective action. Second, there is a small but growing cohort of bureaucrats who, whether in cities or agencies, are struggling to reinvent governance to include citizens in core state institutions and processes, from city planning to budgeting. Third, in civil society, we are seeing a burst of innovation and experimentation among organizers, encompassing “alt-labor” world of new worker movements, from online platforms and associations like CoWorker.org and the Freelancer’s Union which organize workers across diverse industries explicitly outside of the conventional labor union model, as well as new modes of community organizing through online and offline strategies for mobilizing, organizing, and membership-building. In each of these areas of innovation, reformers are attempting to rebuild the civic capacity of our democratic system, expanding the role that citizens and communities play in shaping public policy, in the hopes that such civic engagement will in turn improve the responsiveness, accountability, and dynamism of our political institutions in responding to the complex and controversial public problems of the day.
One of the big challenges of the current moment is a deep and multi-faceted crisis of intermediary institutions. For much of American history, most citizens were connected to national life through an overlapping series of institutions in which they could participate at the local level. These included classic political organizations like local parties or trade unions, voluntary associations like churches or bowling leagues, and a wide variety of mediating business and media organizations like local newspapers. Today, many of these intermediary institutions have atrophied: local media outlets have gone out of business; participation in political organizations has declined; voluntary associations have transformed themselves from focusing on local chapters with an active and regionally dispersed membership to sustaining a national organization through occasional fundraising appeals.
Our role is to expand understanding on what those participatory institutions are and how they are connected to governance on the ground.