America has had a politically divisive year, contending with a deadly pandemic, racial tensions over police brutality and a presidential election that saw an insurrection before it saw an inauguration. But there are opportunities to work together on particular issues going forward, according to panelists at the National Association of Realtors’ midyear conference Wednesday.
Political commentator Van Jones, host of the Van Jones Show on CNN and CEO of Reform Alliance, an organization dedicated to probation and parole reform, and Mara Liasson, national political correspondent for NPR and a contributor for Fox News, spoke at the Realtors Legislative Meetings’ Federal Legislative and Political Forum.
“A lot of changes happening in the country now is change that a big section of America didn’t sign up for, necessarily,” Jones said.
“The chances of your grandchildren looking like your grandparents [are] not very high. We have diversity like you’ve never seen before in the country. Technology is changing things. The culture is changing. And change is hard.
“Some of us are getting goosebumps thinking about all the good things to come and other people are getting white knuckles because they just don’t know what it means for them. I think those of us who are trying to hold the country together and moving forward need to do a better job of pointing out how everybody can do better when everybody does better. That’s a fact. No group has to fall for another group to rise; we can rise together. But right now I think we’ve got a very scared, nervous section of the population.”
Most Americans now open to an ‘activist government’
Liasson, who has been covering Congress since 1985 and every presidential election since 1992, said that Joe Biden’s win heralded the end of the “Reagan Revolution” that viewed the government as a problem rather than a solution, believed the social safety net was “too cushy” and pushed for deregulation and lower taxes, especially for the wealthy.
“You have majorities of Americans who are now open to an activist government,” Liasson said. “They see an experiment in smaller government [and] low taxes which has ended up not producing the broadly-shared prosperity and mobility that democratic capitalism needs to have to keep people’s faith in it. It just hasn’t worked out.”
Biden ran on an agenda where he promised to use the government to address big inequalities, invest in things that will make the middle class stronger and bring back the American Dream, “which is if you work hard and play by the rules your kids can do better than you,” Liasson said, noting that a lot of people have stopped believing in the latter.
“We’re at a really kind of incredible moment in American politics,” she said. “Joe Biden has a very ambitious agenda. I can’t think of a president who’s had a more ambitious agenda with a smaller majority in Congress. He’s trying to basically put a very large antelope through the python, in terms of his agenda.”
“He ran on somehow recreating bipartisanship, which many people think is a thing of the past,” she added.” We’ll see if he can get that. We are at a real hinge point in American politics.”
Both Jones and Liasson believe that the U.S. House of Representatives will flip during the 2022 midterm elections, both because historically the party of the sitting president has lost seats in the House and because the Democratic majority is so slim now.
Do voters want results or bipartisanship?
In the meantime, Jones said Biden would likely push through as much as he can through executive orders and through Congress, but Jones wondered how much he’ll do without having Republicans on board.
“The only question I have for Biden is, is he willing to pull apart some parts of his program that are popular with Republicans and let that go through regular order, so he can get some bipartisan points on the board,” Jones said. “Say, the bricks and mortar part of infrastructure, and then take the other stuff and push that through through reconciliation, without the Republicans. He has a very narrow window to act.”
Republicans only need five seats to regain the majority in the House and one or two seats in the Senate, which makes Biden “an old man in a hurry,” Liasson said.
“If you talk to a lot of Democrats, they think that by paring back their positions is not going to help them retain the majority; they might as well go for broke [and] try to pass what they can,” she said.
“They believe that voters want results more than they want bipartisanship. In other words, better to just pass this in whatever way you can and voters will feel the results.”
‘People vote for their tribe’
Liasson pointed out that a lot of Biden’s programs have big majority support of 60 or 70 percent nationwide and are going to help people who voted Republican. “Something like 95 percent of white non-college voters, Trump’s base, are getting $1,400 checks right now,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean that those people will vote for Democrats in the next election, according to Liasson.
“We’re now so tribalized, so polarized, that the economy doesn’t really matter,” she said. “Cultural issues tend to be more salient and people kind of vote for their tribe, regardless of what they think about the other guy’s policies.”
Little is going to get done if the parties stay so far apart on everything, according to Jones.
“We’ll be able to ram through some big stuff on reconciliation — that’s going to be about it,” he said. “So most of the things we care about in the country are going to go unaddressed in the appropriate way.”
‘Why don’t we just get together and pass it?’
Jones, a Democrat, has a history of bipartisan political advocacy. During the George W. Bush administration he worked closely with Republicans to pass the Green Jobs Act, and during the Trump administration, as the CEO of the Reform Alliance, he worked alongside the White House to pass the First Step Act, which The New York Times called “the most substantial changes in a generation to federal prison and sentencing laws.”
“You can disagree with somebody on 99 issues, but if you have one that you agree with them on, I think your obligation as a citizen is to fight hard on the 99 where you disagree, and to work equally hard on the one where you do agree,” Jones said.
“The things I’m most proud of in my career, are those things that I reached across the aisle, took some heat from my own side,” he added. “But none of the almost 20,000 people who have been safely released from federal prisons as a result of the First Step Act, none of those people are giving me any heat. Their moms and grandmas and children hug me and send me notes all the time and say thank you and it’s worth it.”
A majority of Americans can agree on some aspects of issues such as police reform, climate change, addiction and mental health, according to Jones.
“Most Americans across the board think that these chokeholds should be banned in most cases,” he said. “They think that a police officer should have a duty to intervene if another police officer is violating the law. They believe there should be a publicly available registry of police officers who do really horrible things, a kind of ‘bad cops’ registry. There’s a bunch of stuff we agree on — why don’t we just get together and pass it?”
There are plenty of farmers and ranchers in conservative areas who want to do something about the climate, Jones said.
“These floods and fires and droughts are just killing them,” he said.
He added, “There’s not a single Pentagon scenario that doesn’t include climate disruption as a major threat to U.S. interests.”
Some young conservatives and libertarians believe in climate science and that global warming is being caused by humans, but they don’t believe in the “big government” answers from some Democrats, according to Jones.
“So you got big constituencies growing in the Republican Party that can act,” he said. “There are big things we could do together if we decided to do it.”
Political incentives favor polarization
Bipartisanship is hard because even though there are issues where the parties agree to some extent, such as infrastructure, there are political incentives that make it almost impossible, according to Liasson.
“Mitch McConnell just said today — I’m paraphrasing — but 100 percent of his focus is to stop the Biden administration, or to stop what the Biden administration is trying to do,” she said.
The political parties used to be heterogenous coalitions with overlapping ideologies, which meant there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans and they inhabited a political center where deals got done, according to Liasson.
But the parties have become more homogenous, particularly the GOP, and that means there’s less political incentive to compromise, she said.
Biden promised to work across the aisle, so the question is whether the swing voters that decide the 2022 election will hold it against him if he doesn’t get bipartisan support, Liasson said.
“Or are they people who just really want help?” she said.”Help for their families, help for childcare, help for their elderly parents so they can work outside the home if they’re women, which is the more salient promise.”
More consensus on the facts
She agreed that climate change could potentially be a bridge that cuts across polarization between the parties. Biden is selling his green initiatives as job creators and people are starting to agree more on the facts, according to Liasson.
“One of the biggest divisions in the country right now, and it’s the scariest, is this epistemological division where we can’t even agree on the same set of facts,” she said. “The scariest obviously is that 70 percent of Republicans think that Joe Biden didn’t win the election legitimately. But on climate change, there seems to be more and more of a consensus that people do agree on the facts.
“Yes, the planet is warming, the climate is changing. Human activity is a big reason why. Once you agree on that set of facts, then you can work your way to different opinions. Maybe you just want to adapt and you just don’t want to try to stop it, especially if China and India aren’t doing their part. Maybe you want to invest tremendous amounts of money like the Biden administration does to try to mitigate this and try to cap global warming at a certain point before it gets any worse.
“But at least there is a growing consensus on the basic facts, and that’s a hopeful sign.”
Pull together — or else
Both Liasson and Jones said some form of mandatory national service for young people would help Americans pull together.
“We need more universal experiences in American life,” Liasson said.
Jones agreed. “If we can get them all together and get them off of their phones because … the algorithms drive them into their own little bubbles anyway, it could really help,” he said. “It really could help people understand that we’re one country and you can disagree with people without having to disrespect them.”
Liasson also said civics should be taught in the K-12 curriculum.
“People have no idea what democratic institutions are or what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “So how would they possibly know when they’re being undermined or threatened. There’s a lot of things that we need to do to kind of repair the social fabric.”
The cost of “fighting about everything” is to allow China and Russia to gain the upper hand globally, according to Jones.
“[There are] the woke wars on the left where people are being torn down and torn apart because of something they said on Twitter 10 years ago,” he said. “If you’re on the right, you got to prove how much of a cultist you are. It’s really, really dangerous because our biggest global competitor, China, isn’t doing any of this nonsense. They are head down and determined to define this century on their terms.
“If we’re not careful, human civilization, even as it expands to Mars and beyond, is going to be built on an authoritarian model with no rights and no privacy and no freedom. And people will have a very hard time understanding why those of us in the United States spent so much time fighting about things that are going to seem so petty and trivial and foolish even 10 years from now, let alone 100.”