In My Words: We’re all to blame for cliff diving

Assistant Professor Jason Husser uses a newspaper guest column to suggest ways for Americans to foster cooperation in Washington.

Assistant Professor Jason Husser


The following column appeared recently in the Fayetteville Observer, the Winston-Salem Journal and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.


We’re all to blame for cliff diving
By Jason Husser –

Recent gridlock notwithstanding, the United States Congress remains the most powerful institution in human history. The men and women we send to Washington are a force beyond tangible comprehension.

Our flirtation with the “fiscal cliff,” however, brought an otherwise mighty government to its knees. When Congress finally passed the fiscal cliff deal, they passed the buck. In the months ahead, debt ceiling negotiations will meet all-too-familiar sequestration rules, and we will see political conflict of similar or greater scope.

The true, underlying danger isn’t politicians raising tax rates for fewer services. It’s a society that treats moderates as pariahs and “compromise” as a four-letter word.

The fiscal cliff and the upcoming debt ceiling showdown are just symptoms. Polarization is the disease, a virus in the body politic that poisons legislation. Unless something changes, leaders will continue their brinkmanship on critical issues like the fiscal cliff.

I don’t like it, and you probably don’t, either. Sadly, there aren’t any silver-bullet fixes. Congress didn’t become so divisive overnight. The political woes we face today won’t be corrected easily.

Making committee chair appointments less ideological could help. So could campaign finance, gerrymandering and lobbying reform. It wouldn’t hurt if elected leaders built stronger friendships with counterparts in the other party.

But the changes necessary for healthy levels of political debate in America can’t happen only on Capitol Hill. After all, voters elected our dysfunctional assembly. We are not just victims of divided elites in a complicated world. We are amnesic Americans who forget our Constitution and our nation wouldn’t exist without compromise.

Ordinary people have an opportunity to steady America’s wavering political ship. Here are four ways to start:

First, resist the “us against them” mentality common in domestic politics. Political coalitions rely on many social groups for support. Demonizing those with whom you disagree fuels polarizing rhetoric, hampers politicians from working across the aisle, and conceals valuable lessons we could otherwise learn from those who bring different perspectives to the table.

Second, be skeptical of simple solutions to complex problems. The world is a messy place. Like $100 bills lying on the sidewalk, if simple solutions were easy to find, someone else would have already grabbed them. Solutions to most problems require more information than politicians offer when they seek your vote.

Third, accept our two-party system. As hard as it might be to believe, our party system works admirably well, and it’s unlikely to go away. Institutional structures prevent viable third parties in the United States. We are left to improve what we have.

Fourth, think beyond campaigns. Even if a candidate aligns with your immediate views, ask if that candidate is really the person who would best represent your long-term interests. Ask if the candidate would actually contribute to a legislative process that is healthy for the country.

The cumulative effect of these proposals is to give life, once again, to bipartisanship in American political life.

Congress gets most of the blame for modern political ills, and such blame may be deserved. However, pointing the finger solely toward politicians is a dangerous path of least resistance.

A fix to the real problem, polarization, requires innovative thinking and growth on the part of leaders and everyday citizen alike. The American people must also be accountable to themselves.

Jason Husser is an assistant professor of political science and assistant director of the Elon University Poll.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend ( in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.