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Rising Partisanship Weakening U.S. Role in the World

October 5, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations

Council Study Recommends Steps to Reduce Partisan Divide

October 5, 2005 — The current climate of partisan politics is weakening U.S. primacy and American leadership, concludes a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations. The jam-packed Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule for members of Congress means that fewer Democrats and Republicans actually know and relate to one another in Washington. Thus, foreign policy is often conceived and hatched on one side of the aisle, without the constructive, honing fire of a truly deliberative, non-ideological process, argues the report.

“People naturally disagree about who is responsible for the partisan tone and tactics in Washington, DC, these days, but most agree on this: It’s worse, it’s more intense, and it’s nastier,” says report author Nancy E. Roman, vice president and director of the Council’s Washington Program. The report, Both Sides of the Aisle: A Call for Bipartisan Foreign Policy, says the United States should work with all—not half—of its collective foreign policy brain and talent if it is to maintain primacy in today’s globalized world.

Roman convened a dozen present and former policymakers, including Democrats Lee H. Hamilton and Jamie S. Gorelick and Republicans Carla A. Hills and Kenneth M. Duberstein, to assess the impact of partisan politics on U.S. foreign policy.

A bipartisan deliberative process matters because it produces better and less ideological policy that is more often perceived as American policy—not just Democratic or Republican. It also makes it more likely that policy will remain relatively consistent as administrations change hands and will be perceived as credible from abroad.

Is the level of rancor different from other times throughout history? Yes, finds the report: “People in both parties are complaining that they do not know what the other side thinks on critical foreign policy issues. They say there is generally less engagement and ideas are not being sharpened through debate; the tough questions are not being probed.”

“The job is to diminish and destroy any chance at political success before the guts of the policy are even contemplated. It has become part of the game to have a proffered policy and its sponsor trashed in the media and disparaged in the blogs before it receives any traction. Over time, the political game has overtaken the deliberative-policy process, which results in a dumbing-down of policy,” warns the report.

Both Sides of the Aisle offers recommendations for Congress, the executive branch, and state legislatures and courts. The report makes clear that much will depend on individual policymakers and the choices they make. “Progress will require Republicans and Democrats to conclude that deliberation and dialogue across the aisle is important enough to make the time for it,” says Roman.

A complex variety of social, cultural, and technological changes have contributed to a political culture that discourages inter-party deliberation and debate. Reasons for the current polarization include:

  • Congressional lifestyles: Fewer members of Congress now make Washington, DC, their permanent home; the trend is for members to spend Tuesday through Thursday in the Capital. “This lifestyle change, coupled with generally shorter political careers by choice, means that members’ relationships tend to be more superficial.”
  • Less time: “The pure work load on members of Congress has increased over the last twenty years” and social, travel, and technology changes have increased demands on policymakers’ time.
  • Money chase: It costs much more to win a seat in Congress now. “This means that members have to spend more time raising money and often have precious little room to defy the interest groups that ante up.”
  • Narrow Republican control: The tighter margin of control has given Democrats a reason to hope that they might win back majority status every two years. “On the flipside, this narrow control also makes it imperative for the majority party, now the Republicans, to demand party loyalty.”
  • Media: Televised hearings mean that “members are most often grandstanding for the camera, making speeches instead of inquiries, and there is implicit political pressure to make sure no one allows the other party to look good.” Television news, in general, thrives on accentuating, and in some cases manufacturing, differences. “The twenty-four/seven media cycle means policymakers must take more time to feed the beast.”

This report is part of a broader Council initiative aimed at fostering bipartisan foreign policy. “The Council, given its convening power, its diverse membership and its nearly eighty-five-year nonpartisan tradition, is uniquely positioned to promote discussion between the parties,” said Council President Richard N. Haass. The Council has launched a number of programs, including monthly meetings for congressional chiefs of staff, salon-style dinners in New York and Washington for top current and former officials, and weekly bipartisan congressional briefings that include senior foreign policy staff.

Full text and recommendations of Both Sides of the Aisle: A Call for Bipartisan Foreign Policy

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent national membership organization and a nonpartisan center for scholars dedicated to producing and disseminating ideas so that members, students, interested citizens, and government officials in the United States and other countries can better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other governments.


Contact: Anya Schmemann, Communications, +1-202-518-3419 or aschmemann@cfr.org