OMNIA Q&A: Polarization and Policymaking

Matthew Levendusky, Professor of Political Science and Penny and Robert A. Fox Director of the Fels Institute of Government, on how hyperpartisanship interferes with democracy.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

By Karen Brooks

Once upon a time, says Matthew Levendusky, White House officials and members of Congress shared a steadfast resolve to find common ground and pass laws for the common good. But today, he notes, exceedingly polarized lawmakers are inclined to trade barbs more often than bargains.

Matthew Levendusky, Professor of Political Science

Levendusky—Professor of Political Science, Penny and Robert A. Fox Director of the Fels Institute of Government, and Stephen and Mary Baran Chair in the Institutions of Democracy at the Annenberg Public Policy Center—is an expert in extreme partisanship and its effects on both the legislative process and the American public. He recently spoke with OMNIA about the challenges President Joseph Biden faces as he strives to reach across the aisle and advance his administration’s agenda.


President Biden campaigned on his ability to unite Democrats and Republicans. Can he deliver?

When margins in Congress are as close as they are right now, members of the minority party see benefits to obstructionism. Republicans want to prevent President Biden, and congressional Democrats, from passing legislation that would help them keep control of Congress and the presidency in future elections.

That said, there is some reason for hope. Some congressional Republicans have made positive overtures toward bipartisanship, and Joe Biden understands compromise as well as anyone. And the ongoing crises of COVID-19 and the economic fallout mean that there is genuine demand for action from the public. While not likely, cooperation should be possible—at least on less controversial issues.


Will the Democratic majorities in Congress enable President Biden to effect legislation quickly, regardless?

Even when one party has unified control, passing laws is challenging. We saw this with President Trump. Republicans were not able to accomplish much legislatively in the first two years of his presidency, when they controlled both the White House and Congress. They cut taxes and appointed judges, and that’s basically it—nothing as significant as, for instance, the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act that they’d promised.

Congress is ultimately our nation’s rule-making body, but presidents can use executive orders to change policy without going through the formal legislative process. Executive orders require no congressional approval and are permitted as long as they don’t contravene existing laws. While many presidents have used them, they’ve received more attention lately as gridlock in Congress has made it increasingly challenging to pass policy. On just his first day in office, President Biden signed 17 executive orders on a range of topics.


What are some of the first executive orders President Biden announced, and why did he start with them?

A legislative accomplishment is more durable than an executive order; to get rid of a law, you have to succeed in passing another law, but a sitting president can instantaneously reverse a previous president’s executive orders. A lot of Trump’s orders served to undo things Obama did—and now, lot of Biden’s orders are undoing things Trump did. For example, he is reversing paths Trump set in areas related to the environment and immigration by rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change, revoking the Muslim ban, and addressing the reunion of families who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border while also ending construction of the border wall.


Do you envision any true bipartisan successes in the near future?

As we look forward to elections in 2022 and 2024, I’m hopeful that there will be bipartisan consensus around the expansion of mail balloting. This past year, people got comfortable using mail ballots. Many liked not only the convenience, but also being able to make more informed decisions since they had time to research down-ballot candidates they might not have been familiar with at first glance.

President Trump loudly demonized voting by mail, and many Republicans realize his position hurt their party. Research has shown that there is no partisan advantage to mail balloting—even deep-red Utah runs its elections that way. Politicians should be encouraging all eligible citizens to vote, regardless of how they cast their ballot. Even if they agree on nothing else, both parties should want to involve as many people as possible in our democracy.