What to Do When Facing Polarized, Divided Government

Divided government and partisan politics present an obstacle that can stymie even the best advocacy campaigns. The United States’ peculiar separation of powers model, copied by every state, requires heroic levels of compromise to move legislation forward and with deeply polarized parties, can seem insurmountable. Congress’s well-documented institutional malfunctions have further slowed the rate of lawmaking, however some bills do still pass. In other words, there are opportunities to make policy. Depending on the issue, the moral and policy stakes, and the interests of your base, if you have one, there are a few advocacy strategies to consider under the circumstances. I’ll walk through some pros and cons of each focusing mainly on national politics. While these strategies may also apply to state-level advocacy, divided government is currently uncommon as more than 7 out of 10 states have unified legislative and executive control by a single party, creating somewhat different incentives.  

Option One: Wait for Total Control

For some groups, hitting pause may make the most sense. In other words, stand strong, do not compromise, and wait until your side controls the legislative and executive branch. For progressives nationally, ongoing demographic change and very liberal young voters may overcome gerrymandering and inefficient voter distribution to secure persistent progressive majorities in Congress. Awaiting total control may be appealing or even neccesary on issues such as abortion where there is little or no hope of compromise in the near future. Disputes over raising taxes may also fall into this category since many Republicans routinely pledge never to do so. Fighting back hard and uncompromisingly can also mobilize and grow your base in the meantime, as demonstrated by the growing ranks of progressive activists galvanized by opposition to the Trump administration.  

Waiting to bulldoze your opponent does come with downsides. No one knows how much time it will take to control two branches of government, with little progress in the interim. For example, there is no doubt that incremental progress toward stabilizing Obamacare insurance markets can help a lot of people now who may suffer while waiting for a chance to implement a public option, much less a version of Medicare for All. And once control is achieved, the window is typically brief: Historically, unified majorities rarely persist because competitive elections give a strong incentive for the other party to expand their coalition and shift policy positions to compete for power. And when new majorities take over, they may dismantle pieces of the previous laws or regulations they had no part in making, as the Trump administration has tried to do to policy that unified Democratic majorities passed in 2009 and 2010. For progressives, the distribution of voters suggests limited prospects even over the medium term in the Senate, even if Democrats can win the Presidency and hold onto the House. 

Option Two: Push for a Negotiated Solution

Another strategy is to push your side to adopt a policy position that the other side would never advocate for, but could accept as part of a legislative deal. Initially, this course may look fairly similar to–but more expeditious than–Option One since it enables you to push hard for what you want. The main difference is that at some point during the advocacy campaign, you will need to support a policy solution that is not a nonstarter in order to pave the way for negotiations, even though you may not consider it the optimal solution. A great recent example of this strategy working occured when Democrats included paid parental leave for federal workers as part of a defense package that delivered the Trump Administration’s coveted space force. While most Democrats still prefer to implement comprehensive paid family and medical leave for all workers, enacting a more limited policy for 2.1 million federal employees is still a significant step forward. For advocates, the strategy has its advantages in that it still allows you to push for a fairly strong policy while getting something done and paving the way for future reform.

As the parties polarize further, however, the number of opportunities for even negotiated solutions diminishes. Multiple senior Republican legislators have admitted their strategy throughout the Obama administration was to oppose anything President Obama supported, denying him any victories they could. Even if you can overcome the instinct to avoid helping the other side claim any victory at all, the distance between the parties’ policy preferences means you may need to accept a very modest win. 

Option Three: Try Finding the (Vanishing) Bipartisan Ground 

Rather than wait until the horse-trading stage at the end of a negotiation to achieve agreement, advocates can try to seek bipartisan support early on, helping a bill move through a divided Congress. Despite diminishing productivity, Congress still does pass bills that begin with bipartisan support (or at least serious bipartisan negotiation) such as the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act or more recently the First Step Act. The latter’s reform to the criminal justice system may have appeared to be a pipe dream for advocates several years ago. However, progressive advocates took advantage of fiscal conservatives’ concerns about the justice system’s high costs–as well as the spike in opioid use and similar drug-related deaths among white constituents that triggered greater sympathy for low-level, non-violent offenders among conservatives–opening an opportunity to work together. 

Taking this strategy requires keeping up relationships with both parties, framing issues and choosing priorities that do not turn too many people off. The downside of this is that by making your policies palatable to more people who are very polarized, advocates can end up finding a lowest common denominator that accomplishes little. The concerns about the scope of the reform mentioned in the article on the First Step Act above are a good example. Progressive advocates frequently observe this pattern in attempts to increase funding where getting Republican support can be especially difficult. Conservatives might say the same about progressive willingness to reduce rules and regulations. Finally, seeking bipartisan support can limit your own influence as an advocate. If you’re not seen as standing up strong enough for coalition issues you may lose allies who will be concerned you will give up too much in search of an incremental or even meaningless bill.

Option Four: Go Local

If you don’t like your options above, it’s entirely reasonable to throw your hands up and look elsewhere. Our federal system provides plenty of opportunities. Although state governments have become increasingly partisan, there is a great deal of variation across the 50 states, including states where legislative and executive branches of government may be amenable to your policy objectives, or states with greater bipartisan flexibility among legislators who are not dependent on national parties. The partisan incentives may look somewhat different than at the national level. Demographics mean California is unlikely to switch to Republican control anytime soon, while the reverse is true in many southern states. In such places, you either need to work with the party in power, or go local toward cities. The Fight for $15 movement has executed this strategy phenomenally well, racking up wins in cities and states across the country over the last eight years. 

Of course there are downsides to state and local policy plays. Your organization may not have a base in states or cities and risks parachuting in, harming local movements more than helping. Thus you will want to be thoughtful about how you go about building relationships. The size of the prize is also smaller. If you believe many people really want or would benefit from your policy idea, everyone else outside whatever state or city you choose to campaign in will miss out on the great benefits, at least in the short run. For large national groups with local bases or chapters, the choice is one of relative emphasis. You are not going to stop working at the local, state, and national level, but you may allocate more resources toward supporting local advocates who have an opportunity to achieve wins and build momentum. 

Do you see other potential strategic options or good examples of these strategies in action? Include them in the comments!