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The Pulse: Foundation addresses political polarization

Reducing global poverty. Limiting the risk of climate change. Improving education. Lofty goals for what are universally recognized as weighty problems. And now, one of the world's most substantial foundations has added a new scourge to be toppled: political polarization.

Reducing global poverty. Limiting the risk of climate change. Improving education. Lofty goals for what are universally recognized as weighty problems. And now, one of the world's most substantial foundations has added a new scourge to be toppled: political polarization.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, with roughly $9 billion in assets, has launched the Madison Initiative, a $50 million effort to mobilize support for changes that can bring the spirit of negotiation and compromise both to Congress and to the larger political society.

"Reflecting its Madisonian roots, this initiative calls upon us to join forces with other funders, civic groups, and leaders, in and outside of government, to restore pragmatism and the spirit of compromise in Congress; to reform campaigns and elections so they set the stage for problem solving; and to promote an informed and active citizenry. Our approach is explicitly agnostic on particular policy outcomes," reads the initiative's website.

Larry Kramer, the former dean of the Stanford Law School, is the president of the foundation. While recently delivering the Owen J. Roberts Memorial Lecture on Constitutional Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Kramer argued that James Madison and the other Founding Fathers deliberately designed a system of government predicated on negotiation and compromise. According to Kramer, we need to ask what the Constitution requires of all of us to make that work.

"A willingness to deliberate, to negotiate and, ultimately, to compromise with others who disagree," Kramer said. "This, I want to suggest, is a fundamental obligation and responsibility of both citizens and their representatives in government, a necessary condition for republican rule, and among the central principles on which our constitutional system rests."

Party-line voting attributable to party discipline is one example of today's level of polarization cited by Kramer. As reported by Congressional Quarterly, as late as the 1970s the typical member of Congress voted with his or her party just over 60 percent of the time. That increased to 70 percent in the 1980s, 80 percent in the 1990s, and in the 2000s has risen to an astonishing 87 percent.

So why is polarization now a focus of one of the world's largest foundations? Kramer told me that Hewlett is interested in exploring solutions both because the problem is so important in its own right and because so much work of reform, whether liberal or conservative, depends on this ability to move public policy.

"If changes can't take place because government is gridlocked, then we're just wasting time and money on all our other programs," he said. "The U.S. has to play a critical role on everything, and we can't play a critical role on much of anything in this situation."

Kramer, a former academic, sees the problem of polarization through both a historical and constitutional lens. He recognizes that our nation has faced this before, but underscores that it is not a self-correcting problem. It was only when people became concerned enough to act that the situation was resolved in the past. And today, Kramer views the threat of polarization as one that could threaten our republic.

"The American democratic system . . . was designed with the idea of encompassing lots of interests and beliefs and passions, and so necessarily requiring people to recognize that they were part of one country and needed to compromise around those differences," he told me. "And if we can't get back to doing that then we'll tear ourselves apart as republics have throughout history."

I shared Kramer's speech with someone who has written and taught about this subject extensively. Brian Rosenwald, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who is completing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia, gave Kramer's assessment high marks.

"The key problem is that the central focus of electoral competition has shifted from general elections to primary elections," Rosenwald said. "Even at the Senate level, where there are no gerrymandered boundaries, members of Congress worry more about primary challenges than they do about general elections."

He added: "To me, the key to rectifying the situation is figuring out a way to shift the balance back toward general elections, which theoretically promote moderation, though more and more we have places like Wisconsin, where close competition results from nearly balanced groups of ideological opponents. One way to do that would be for moderates to run as independents instead of subjecting themselves to primaries. Another would be for moderates to endorse across party lines. I also think that moderation and compromise face the same obstacle that plagued moderate Republicans in the 1960s and 1970s - they are more temperamentally moderate and less willing to go to the mattresses."

Kramer is realistic about the task at hand. Despite the commitment being made by Hewlett, the scale of the problem requires other funding partners, support of the activist community, and involvement by rank-and-file Americans through voting. "Everyone," he said, "has a part to play here."

"The Hewlett Foundation is not going to single-handedly 'save' America's democracy," Kramer said. "We hope we can find a few areas in which to intervene where we can help nudge the system in a better direction."