By Greg Varner
What can be done to counter the increasingly polarized political climate in the United States?
A model of civil bipartisanship was on display Thursday when a panel of experts held a relaxed conversation during the annual Frank J. Fahrenkopf and Charles T. Manatt Endowed Lecture at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM).
The talk, “Renewing Bipartisanship: Making Washington Work Again,” was combined with the GSPM’s alumni achievement awards ceremony. The lecture is named in honor of donors Charles Manatt, J.D. ’62, Hon. ’08, and Frank Fahrenkopf, who were longtime friends across the political aisle before Mr. Manatt’s death in 2011.
Recipients of the alumni award this year were Jordan Bernstein, M.A. ’98, now CEO of Cassidy & Associates, a government-relations firm in the District of Columbia; Julius Hobson Jr., M.A. ’80, a senior policy advisor at Polsinelli, one of the nation’s largest law firms; and Anne Rancourt, M.P.S. ’10, communications director for the National Institutes of Health.
The alumni were joined on the panel by two former U.S. representatives, Republican Mike Bishop and Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, both serving as GSPM fellows for the 2021-22 academic year. The conversation was moderated by Casey Burgat, director of the GSPM Legislative Affairs Program.
Lara Brown, GSPM director, introduced the evening by thanking Mr. Fahrenkopf and Michele Manatt, the daughter of Mr. Manatt, for their support of the school.
“GSPM looks to train its students that bipartisanship makes democracy work,” Dr. Brown said, citing “principles we usually ascribe to sportsmanship: forbearance, restraint and a mutual tolerance and respect for the opposition as well as adherence to the rules.” She then read commendations recognizing this year’s award recipients for their achievements in the spirit of bipartisanship.
Dr. Burgat began by emphasizing the importance of conversation across the aisle and stressing the urgent need for bipartisanship, pointing to the Jan. 6 insurrection as evidence of this need.
“We are incredibly polarized. Republicans and Democrats do not agree with each other no matter what the issue is,” Dr. Burgat said. “Even historically nonpartisan institutions are now getting undermined on purpose for political gain.”
Despite the fact that a majority of voters from both parties say they want bipartisanship, Mr. Bishop said, it can be hard for legislators to deliver it.
“If you walk one toe off the beaten path, you’re branded as a heretic,” he said.
Sometimes, Ms. Mucarsel-Powell said, legislators need to summon the courage to vote against their district but for their conscience and for the wellbeing of the country.
“Ultimately, if you’re doing the right thing, people will know it,” Ms. Mucarsel-Powell said.
In the current environment, Mr. Bernstein said, voters can elect you one day and not trust you the next.
Mr. Hobson agreed, noting that as each party pushes out its moderate members, the parties get further apart.
“It has been disturbing to watch,” he said. “I don’t know how we can pull back from it. It was personally difficult for me watching that insurrection.”
As someone who works in public relations for a nonpartisan agency, Ms. Rancourt said, she remains apart from the fray.
“We serve the American people,” she said. “We don’t serve a political party regardless of which one is in power.”
Polarization has been exacerbated by COVID-19, Mr. Bernstein said, in that interacting online adds another layer of complexity to relationships.
An even greater problem, Ms. Mucarsel-Powell said, is the increasing radicalization in our politics.
“We need to have the conversation of how one party has become so radicalized,” she said. “That’s a conversation we need to have before we can work on solving the nation’s problems.”
Greater electoral engagement, Ms. Mucarsel-Powell added, could help.
“People need to start paying attention to who they’re sending to top levels of government,” she said.
After noting that there are members of Congress in both parties who “have no business being there,” Mr. Bishop said, “We just have to keep reminding members what they’re there for.”
Another exacerbating factor, Mr. Hobson said, is social media, with its way of encouraging people to comment on events and issues instantaneously.
“We’re on the wrong road, and we need to pull back,” he said. “We’ve been here before, but the problem is social media. People need to stop and think before they act.”
Some of the fighting, Dr. Burgat and Mr. Bernstein agreed, is theater. “The people yelling at each other on TV are often good friends,” Dr. Burgat said.
But some of the fighting is real. Rebuilding trust between parties and Congressional colleagues, the panelists agreed, is an important task facing the country. Speaking from the audience during a question-and-answer period, Mr. Fahrenkopf proposed that one way to do that is to socialize across the aisle.