Peace on Earth and goodwill to men this time of year seems increasingly absent in diverse places. In America, the noble objective seems to have long ago left the U.S. Capitol, where too many members of Congress are as divided and angry at each other as ever.
A new study by researchers at Cornell University finds there may be an actual "tipping point" where no issue imaginable can unite Republicans and Democrats. The study reveals that extreme polarization is so bad it may be irreversible. Worse, if that's possible, the team's predictive model for measuring the behavior of a polarized political group — like the current U.S. Senate — shows that even an attack by a foreign power or another pandemic would not heal the political divide.
As Gerald Seib noted in a 2021 Year in Review column for The Wall Street Journal: "Neither party is strong enough to impose its will, while polarization has made compromise nearly impossible."
It's one thing to lament such a development and another to attempt to do something about it. If fools rush in where angels fear to tread, then call Jonathan Perman a fool. Perman is co-director of The Bipartisan Policy Center's American Congressional Exchange (ACE). Founded in 2018, the stated purpose of the nonprofit organization is to assign individual members of Congress who might not know each other well, or at all, to visit each other's districts, hoping they will discover some shared interests. It sounds like a type of student exchange program for grown-ups, though it appears students get along with each other better than elected officials.
What difference do these new relationships bring to policies? Perman tells me, "They are smaller things. We are not going to brag that we have solved Social Security. This is incremental."
He mentions Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Michigan, who last year visited the district of Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Florida. Five weeks after they traveled together (Perman says they had only met once before), they co-sponsored a bill to help members of the military transition to civilian life. Both said that without the trip sponsored by ACE they might not ever have gotten together. Murphy subsequently visited Bergman's district.
Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., are on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Perman says Tonko had never been to West Virginia. In May, they spent two days visiting sites where Tonko met mine workers. In August, McKinley traveled to Albany and visited a hydrogen production site. McKinley, says Perman, understands there will be a transition from fossil fuels but wants to make sure his people are protected. They co-sponsored a bill to advance clean hydrogen deployment.
Perman says ACE pays for the visiting member, and the trips are approved by the House Ethics Committee. He says more than 30 trips have been taken so far. These "dignify differences" he says of issues that are not resolved. "There is nothing wrong with differences, but this program gives members an opportunity to see parts of the country they know nothing about."
One of the major problems is that in too many instances some members who seek to cooperate with their opposites are told by leadership not to. From the perspective of many conservatives, compromise means Republicans must give far more than they get.
It's easy to be cynical about such things as members of Congress must appeal to their respective constituencies. It is difficult for a Democrat and Republican to be seen dining together in Washington — even should they wish to — lest someone take a picture and use it against one or the other in the next campaign for consorting with "the enemy." However, any effort to create peace and goodwill should be encouraged, not dismissed out of hand. Peace on Earth was what the angels cried out on the day the Prince of Peace was born. Congress and the rest of us would do well to listen to their voices.
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