The 2020 election confirms it: Americans are more divided than at any time in recent history. Our increasing polarization makes it difficult for our government to produce results on behalf of the public – or even for Americans of differing political views to have civil conversations.
Paradoxically, however, this moment of heightened polarization also contains the seeds of renewal. With political coalitions increasingly entrenched and splitting the country nearly down the middle, our nation’s leaders face a stark choice: Continue down the path of gridlock and total political warfare, or begin to carve out a space where people of both parties can work together on behalf of the public interest.
The good news is that there are a surprising number of public policies on which Republicans, Democrats and independents share common ground. By daring to venture out across political “no man’s land” and forge compromise on areas of public concern, lawmakers can get important work done for the American people even as they begin to create a pathway out of the nation’s dangerous and counterproductive polarization.
This paper outlines 12 areas of policy where the potential exists for real reforms that bridge the partisan divide and restore Americans’ faith and trust in one another and in their government.
- Infrastructure – A national infrastructure bank has been proposed by both Democrats and Republicans as a tool to unlock investment in the nation’s crumbling and outdated infrastructure.
- National service – Republicans and Democrats have supported proposals for an expansion of national service – creating new opportunities for Americans of all backgrounds to work together to better our communities.
- Broadband internet – Lack of access to broadband internet impedes the ability of children to learn during a time of pandemic and of rural communities to thrive in the 21st century economy. Public broadband can be a solution.
- Climate change – Young Americans – including young conservatives – are increasingly alarmed about global warming as climate impacts become more severe and apparent, opening the door to forge bipartisan agreement on specific policies around the edges of the climate debate and build toward larger solutions.
- Career and technical education – The nation has a growing need for training for so-called “mid-skill” jobs accessible to those without a college education. Revitalizing career and technical education can help prepare a broader range of young people for success in today’s economy.
- Gun safety – Gun rights are among the most polarizing issues in America, but the vast majority of Americans agree that specific measures to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people are necessary and appropriate.
- Cutting wasteful spending – Progressives and conservatives often disagree about the size and role of government, but there are some government programs and tax breaks that simply don’t make sense. Cutting wasteful programs can save money at a time of growing fiscal challenges.
- Government transparency – Transparency and accountability are imperative to restoring trust in government. Bipartisan reforms can improve citizen access to information about government spending and impose accountability on public officials.
- Citizen engagement with government spending – In a growing number of communities, citizens are entrusted with directly deciding how a portion of their tax dollars are spent. The adoption of participatory budgeting or the expansion of the current income tax check-off system could provide new ways for citizens to engage with government.
- Empowering citizens in elections – Americans are sick and tired of expensive elections bankrolled by wealthy special interests. Policies such as tax credits or matching grants for small political contributions can help even the scales between big and small donors.
- Right to repair – From smartphones to farm equipment, manufacturers often make it difficult or impossible for consumers to fix the things they own. “Right to repair” legislation can expand freedom for individuals and counter the power of the tech industry.
- Clean energy – Tax credits for wind and solar power are broadly popular and have helped spark the dramatic growth of renewable energy. There is broad bipartisan support for extending the tax credits, providing a firm foundation for continued recovery of renewable energy after the COVID-19 pandemic.
These areas of potential transpartisan cooperation are just the tip of the iceberg. From rebuilding our public health system to handle pandemics to addressing the plague of opioid addiction; from replacing lead water pipes in our cities to protecting precious lands and clear streams in the wilderness; and from reforming our antitrust laws to reforming our criminal justice system, America has no shortage of critical challenges we need to face. By identifying areas of potential common ground and then getting to work to enact solutions in those areas, the nation can begin to face up to its challenges.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.
Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG
Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.