From the Center

The State of the Union address was once an official government proceeding in which both parties temporarily put aside their differences to hear the president offer his prognosis for the health of the nation. Last week, that solemnity and bipartisanship seemed very far away.

Instead, the address took on all the trappings of a campaign rally. Democrats repeatedly broke into chants of “four more years,” and Republicans booed, hissed, and wore campaign paraphernalia. The president taunted his detractors, they yelled back at him and the entire evening ended up feeling more like a UFC match than an age-old tradition of governance. 

It’s easy to assume that American politics has always been so nasty, ugly, and brutish. While politics has always been – necessarily and definitionally - partisan, leaders from both parties have been able to set aside their differences when urgent circumstances demanded a more cooperative approach. But even those occasional instances of comity are becoming more rare, resulting in finger-pointing, name-calling and gridlock.

Although we tend to blame politicians for this hyper-partisanship, much of the polarization is actually of our own doing, as American society as a whole also becomes more fractious and more divided. In every walk of life, we are increasingly intolerant toward those with whom we disagree. Blame COVID, blame social media, blame our own intransigence and self-absorption, but the skills of listening, learning and comprising with others with different opinions and perspectives are quickly becoming a lost art. It shouldn’t be surprising that a country that’s deeply split will elect politicians who don’t want to find common ground—or don’t know how to do it.

So how do we get out of this mess? How do we learn to work together again, so our politics -- and our country—can heal? As an impatient species, we tend to seek out instant answers and magic solutions. But it took us many years to devolve to this point: we’re not going to fix it overnight. And the solutions will not come from Washington; they will require each of us to do our part.

But Congress will be given the opportunity to take an important step forward toward this goal this week, when legislation that will provide opportunities for Americans who want to play a role in re-establishing a more civil and collaborative approach in Washington and in their own communities will be introduced by Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Andy Barr (R-KY), mirroring similar work in the Senate by Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware and Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska. The Building Civic Bridges Act will include these major components:

·      Administering a grant program to support civic bridge building programs across the nation—funding nonprofits, public institutions, schools, and religious groups, among others;

·      Supporting the training of AmeriCorps members in civic bridge building skills and techniques;

·      Supporting research at colleges and universities on civic bridge building, civic engagement, and social cohesion.

Let’s concentrate on the first of those objectives: funding programs that teach members of their communities how to work together. Public opinion polling shows that large majorities of Americans yearn for a less polarized political landscape. But few of them know where to go or what to do to help make their goal a reality. Billions of dollars will be spent this year by the two major parties and their candidates to drive us apart. A small investment can be a valuable catalyst for those who are underwhelmed by the artificial binary choices presented to them to become part of a solution.

The bill’s supporters understand that good intentions are only one part of legitimate progress, which is why they propose using the AmeriCorps volunteer service program as a laboratory for their work. Someone who signs up for an organization like this admittedly possesses an abnormal amount of civic energy, but an organization comprised of such zealots can serve as a valuable demonstration project on how to build these bridges. Academic research that examines best practices, new alternatives and other possibilities for moving forward will also provide necessary guidance for these efforts as they expand.

The U.S. government spends tens of millions of dollars through the National Endowment for Democracy trying to foster social cohesion and support civic bridge building in other countries to strengthen democracy abroad, yet it does none of that work here in the United States. If we are going to once again try to set an example for the rest of the world, maybe teaching those lessons here at home could be somewhat useful.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at:

Editor's Note 3/14/24: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to Sen. Sasse as Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA).

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: SHAWN THEW/Pool via REUTERS