Series of essays on democracy.IT IS EASY TO THINK OF THE POLARIZATION of American politics as a fairly recent phenomenon, a sudden departure from a collegial and collaborative past. The truth is that the causes of our current political divide are both systemic and historical, stretching back far beyond the rise of social media or the ascendance of cable news and free-flowing political money.

The seeds of today’s partisanship were planted in 1964, with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Southern conservatives began their exit from the Democratic Party, making the Republicans more conservative and both parties more homogeneous.

That mythic time when politics “worked” was also, as many of us forget, a time of Democratic hegemony—Democrats were the sun to the Republicans’ moon, and Republicans knew they had to go along to get along. After 1980, as majority control of the House and the Senate came up for grabs, and getting a majority in Congress became each party’s single most important goal, incentives for cooperation began to evaporate.

Portrait of Jane Mansbridge.

“Even if political partisans do see one another as enemies, it is important to realize that enemies can negotiate. And they must, to keep even basic government going.”

Jane Mansbridge

Economic inequality may also play a role: Polarization declined from a high point at the end of the 19th century to a 50-year low from approximately 1930 to 1980 and has risen to an even higher point today, mapping almost perfectly to the decline and rise of inequality. That close mapping suggests a causal relationship, but which caused what, or the degree to which both might be effects of another cause, is unclear.

And finally, yes, we can also blame the effects of social media and narrowcasting, as individuals move away from a largely shared and limited menu of journalism and opinion and toward single-serving-sized communications that emotionally and cognitively reinforce, rather than challenge, individual predispositions.

These deep-rooted divisions are unlikely to go away anytime soon. But even if political partisans do see one another as enemies, it is important to realize that enemies can negotiate. And they must, to keep even basic government going. Our constitutional system, with its checks and balances, was intentionally set up so that at least some sort of consensus is required for laws to be passed.

The good news is that negotiation is a teachable skill. Today, almost all business schools, law schools, and policy schools throughout the United States and many parts of the world offer courses in how to negotiate, in sectors from business to international relations.

Surprisingly, no one has ever focused on legislative negotiation—until now. The skills required for legislative negotiation are much the same as those required for any other kind, although the context is different. So in the past two years, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, Brian Mandell, the Mohamed Kamal Senior Lecturer in Negotiation and Public Policy; Kessely Hong, a lecturer in public policy; Julia Minson, an associate professor of public policy; Archon Fung, the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government; and I have served on a team at the Kennedy School to create a set of materials for teaching legislative negotiation.

A big difference from classic negotiation in business is that the specific members of Congress who negotiate an agreement with specific members of the other party then have to sell that agreement to their party colleagues (not easy), who in turn must sell it to their constituents (also not easy). Conceptually, it is what in negotiation theory is called a three-level game. Throughout the process, activists on both sides often have incentives to torpedo the deal. Nevertheless, a well-crafted agreement, which gives each side something it wants, can survive those attacks.

The materials developed at the Kennedy School, which include simulations, cases, and exercises, have been through a year of testing with congressional staffers and state legislators, with highly successful results. The Library of Congress has started a program to train high-level congressional staffers in negotiation skills, using Kennedy School materials and, at least for the initial sessions, HKS faculty members. The first training, held this past August, got rave reviews, and many congressional staffers have already signed up for the next one. We hope that learning the fundamentals of good negotiation can help these people (who do much of the negotiating), and eventually members of Congress as well, break through the impasses created by polarization.

Jane Mansbridge is the Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values. Her current work includes studies of representation, democratic deliberation, everyday activism, and the public understanding of free-rider problems.

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