No Party Can Rule Forever. Political Empathy is Key to America's Survival | Opinion

Partisanship and gridlock have always been part of American political life, but our dysfunction has rarely been this pronounced—and its consequences have rarely been this profound. As Leon Panetta says in the new documentary Stars and Strife, "Washington, D.C. is more meanly partisan than at any time in my more than 50 years of public life." How did we get there?

Part of the problem is that both political parties are selling a partisan illusion: that they'll win big, crush the other side, and control Washington's policy levers forever. History, and our decades of experience at the highest levels of government service, tell us that's not likely.

The country is evenly divided, and voters don't trust either party for long. Over the past half century, control of the Senate has switched every four to six years. Seven of the last 14 presidents have been Democratic, seven Republican. Presidents Trump, Obama, and Clinton came into office holding both houses of Congress. In each case, voters turned to divided government after only two years. September 11th delayed, but did not prevent, the same fate for George W. Bush.

Procedural changes to reduce the minority party's power, such as eliminating the Senate filibuster, would broaden the majority party's window for legislating. In a divided country, however, the other party could soon reverse direction. We can't rely on landslide elections large enough to render the opposition irrelevant for substantive change. To pave the way for permanent solutions on a scale that matches the size of our problems, we need to unify and mobilize the common-sense center of the country.

In the United States, monumental change comes from compromise; that's how the framers designed our constitutional republic. Reforms that enjoy support from the center-left and center-right — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example — tend to be the most consequential and durable.

The problem is that people no longer come to Washington to build broad consensus around ideas. They come to stop the other side. And they quickly cozy up to a burgeoning hate industry that's gotten rich and powerful by promoting contempt and division. A politics of hate have crippled our ability to find common-sense solutions. Even policies that enjoy widespread public support never see the light of day for a vote.

That industry of contempt has destroyed incentives for coalition-building. Rather than focus on the interests of their constituents as a whole, elected officials quickly become responsive to the most divisive elements of their base.

Primary politics tend to drive candidates toward the extremes of policymaking. This year, the Cook Political Report ranks only 26 out of 435 U.S. House elections as true "toss-ups." Meanwhile, insufficient hatred for the other side can spell doom in a primary. In June, Denver Riggleman, a Republican Congressman in Virginia's heavily gerrymandered 5th district who voted with Trump 94 percent of the time, lost his party's nomination after officiating a same-sex wedding for two campaign volunteers.

This is the kind of environment that leads elected officials to put party over country. They have electoral (and often, financial) incentives for hateful demagoguery, but not for compromise and progress. And social media's practice of awarding lucrative clicks for negativism has worsened the process and probably harmed journalism for good.

We need reforms that produce candidates with the broadest possible base of support. Those could include nonpartisan primaries and restricting the flow of "dark money" that fuels the hate industry.

Ultimately, the issue is empathy: understanding the needs, hopes and fears of the reasonable folks on the other side. Empathy that leads to compromise is at the heart of the American Experiment. And as empathy continues to fade, and compromise becomes impossible, working Americans will pay the highest price.

The risks of dysfunction are enormous, both for our democracy and our economy. We are a nation in debt, and the U.S. dollar is weakening—including against the euro. That could be, in part, because the world is voting "thumbs down" on the post-1945 belief in American Exceptionalism: the notion that Americans, despite their differences, always come together to face difficult problems.

We believe the United States can continue to be a country of problem solvers, but only if we learn the lessons of history. It's time to end the partisan civil war.

James Baker III is a former U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Secretary of Treasury, and White House Chief of Staff. David Smick is a global financial strategist and author of the bestseller The World is Curved. He wrote and directed Stars and Strife, the new film about hate, division, and empathy. Mr. Baker appears in the film.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.