Conventional wisdom holds that because America emerged from its recent elections as divided—or more divided—than ever, the country is doomed to continued legislative gridlock and dysfunction. This conventional wisdom is wrong. Washington is not dysfunctional because America is divided. America is divided because Washington is dysfunctional.

It is likely that majorities of both U.S. President Donald Trump’s and President-elect Joe Biden’s voters would agree that our political system has failed to sufficiently address the concerns of its citizens (though they would point to different examples). Dissatisfaction with the status quo is central to both the crude whitewashed nostalgia of Trump-style populism and to the progressive agenda of the American left. But dysfunction in Washington—in particular, the failure of Congress to deliver meaningful legislation that has a positive material impact on most Americans’ lives and lifts their hopes for the future—has created a shared background belief that Americans are destined to battle each other over a shrinking pie. That sense of scarcity and pessimism underwrites division. Even worse, once these divisions are created, a doom-loop ensues: division decreases the incentives for and possibilities for proper function, particularly when it comes to Congress.

Dan Baer
Dan Baer is a senior fellow in the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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But here’s the good news. While Americans may be divided politically into roughly equal opposing groups, both of which describe the other in increasingly emotional and negative terms, there remain shared policy ideas that significant majorities of Americans support. And those ideas offer perhaps the best shot at breaking the grip of gridlock.

Helping the System Function

The way forward, initially, is not for either group of Americans to believe that they can persuade the other to want what they want. It is to find things that a significant majority of Americans already want and deliver them. This is not a recipe for partisan advantage, but rather for restoring a level of function to the political system that can be felt in the everyday lives of its citizens.

Here are four big ideas that could attract broad popular support next year and help jumpstart the system.

  • A fifty-state infrastructure bill. “Infrastructure week” became a running joke during the Trump administration because of the White House’s ham-handed approach, which was long on bold declarations and short on mechanics. But the need for infrastructure remains, and so does the support for it. A Biden administration can commit to an infrastructure investment plan that includes projects in all fifty states and Puerto Rico. Every senator who supports it will be able to say that they helped bring new jobs and new opportunity to their state. And, in addition to supporting an economic recovery, a smart infrastructure package will include investments that help advance related goals: speeding up the transition to green energy, expanding public transit, enhancing resilience to climate-related disasters including hurricanes and forest fires, and achieving broadband coverage for rural America where too many people still don’t have internet access.
  • Demonstrate family values with a “Value Families” tax credit. About one in six children in the United States live in poverty, a rate that is higher than that of many other OECD countries including Greece, Russia, and Mexico. A tax credit for families with children, like that proposed by Senators Michael Bennet and Sherrod Brown in the American Family Act, should attract broad support. Progressives have signed on because it would immediately cut child poverty by a third. It would also effectively give a significant tax break to middle class families across the country. Supporting middle class families should be attractive to Republicans: if you rank states with the highest percentage of population under age 18, not a single one of the top fifteen states is blue. Red state constituents would benefit, and their representatives and senators know that.
  • Upskill America. The pandemic has precipitated an economic and employment crisis and is likely to accelerate automation and other changes in the U.S. economy that will require workers to have more skills in order to compete. Pell Grants, the federal government’s primary subsidy for higher education, have three problems: they are too small (the maximum is only around half of average tuition at public four-year universities); they leave out most of the middle class because the income qualification ceiling is too low; and they are insufficiently flexible for part-time students who may be working full time while seeking a new qualification. A bipartisan group of legislators could offer a fix for all three of these—double the money offered by Pell Grants, double the income level at which they begin to phase out, and make them workable for part-time students. Millions of Americans would immediately see a benefit, including those out of work or seeking to change jobs because of the pandemic. The Trump administration made a push around modern apprenticeships—a Biden White House could refine and expand these efforts, building on successful pilot programs like the one in Colorado. An investment in a skilled workforce would mitigate the pandemic’s impact on higher education enrollment, support a robust economic recovery, and make America more competitive in the global economy.
  • Build a bridge over the pandemic. There was bipartisan support for the CARES Act in April—it passed the Senate 96-0—and, now that the election season has passed and with vaccines in sight, there should be a robust new stimulus package to help the country reach the other side of the pandemic. It must include additional support to unemployed people and small businesses, but there also needs to be concentrated focus on other pain points. For one, Biden should emphasize healthcare, including a comprehensive plan to cover the costs of nationwide testing and soon, vaccination. Progress toward universal health coverage may also be possible: recent polling found that 69 percent of Republicans favor allowing individuals aged 50-64 to buy insurance through Medicare and 64 percent support allowing people who don’t get health insurance at work to buy it through their state’s Medicaid program. Two, Biden should focus on schools and getting them the resources they need to open safely, and stay open, as much as possible. For families with school-aged children, the closing of schools has been perhaps the most disruptive aspect of the pandemic. And for the students themselves, the shortcomings and inequities of online education threaten to have long-term impacts. Acknowledging the urgency of resuming in-person learning for children—and putting resources into reinforcing schools so that they can adapt to public health guidelines—will be broadly popular. A bridge is only useful if it goes from one side all the way to the other—half a bridge won’t do. The American people are counting on their elected leaders not to shortchange the recovery from the pandemic.

Challenges and Change Ahead

Some will see this as unrealistic. And no one should minimize the challenges that a Biden administration is likely to face in working with Republican leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate, especially if Republicans retain the majority after the two runoff elections in Georgia in early January. But the best way to get a shot at cooperation is also the best way to raise the costs to Republicans of failing to cooperate. If Biden’s administration earnestly invites partnership on popular ideas, ideas that large numbers of Republican voters like, it will be up to Republicans to explain to voters why they are refusing to deliver for their constituents.

In short, this is a moment—to modify Senator Elizabeth Warren’s slogan—for big, popular change, for change that is felt immediately by Biden voters and Trump voters alike. Biden needs to pop the clutch of American democracy, and you have to get the car moving before you can rev the engine.