We must change the incentives for compromise in Congress

One thing is clear in American politics today: divisive rhetoric dominates the news. This doesn’t come as a surprise. Partisan attacks and bullying drive more clicks and views from the public, which incentivizes media outlets to run stories focusing on polarization in politics much more frequently than stories of cooperation. This has a cyclical effect. If there is no media coverage of politicians working hard to create bipartisan solutions, the American public is unaware of their efforts, which ultimately disincentivizes lawmakers from finding a solution to the nation’s biggest issues.

New data highlights this stark contrast in media coverage between hyper-partisan politicians and the pragmatic, bipartisan legislators in Congress. The study found that hyper-partisan politicians received over four times the amount of coverage among online news sites and cable news programs as their more productive bipartisan counterparts.

This coverage imbalance creates the wrong incentive structure for our elected officials. Media coverage is critical for political leaders to garner support among their constituents. When hyper-polarized politicians seize the spotlight, they may be rewarded for this politically, even if their bullish stances actually work counter to finding a solution that is agreeable to all. Meanwhile, lawmakers who work day in and day out to make alliances and foster compromise are not rewarded with media time and awareness for their success.

A similar poll further demonstrates this disparity in the American public’s perception of politicians, showing that hyper-partisan politicians have much higher name recognition than pragmatic politicians, who are largely unknown. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed reported that they had heard of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who scored the lowest, most hyper-partisan score, while only 18 percent reported knowledge of Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who scored the highest, most bipartisan score in the analysis.

Not only do these bipartisan leaders remain off the American people’s radar, but their bipartisan bills do not garner their fair share of media attention. For example, how often have you seen prime-time news coverage of Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) and her Republican colleagues working together to create a federal leave policy so parents can spend more time with their newborns? Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and his Democratic colleagues’ bill aimed at regulating AI has also flown under the media’s radar despite its attempt to reasonably oversee arguably the most consequential technologies of our generation. And while the Ohio train derailment was highly covered in the news, Sens. JD Vance (R-Ohio) and Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) legislation to prevent future train disasters hasn’t been afforded the applause it deserves. These important bills involve members of Congress of various political leanings working together to protect the nation’s general well-being and national security, but they have not gained nearly as much media attention as flashier, more controversial legislation. 

How do we change this backward dynamic? First, we must raise awareness of this discrepancy that gives screen time and attention to those who are loud and polarizing and not to those who work constructively to get things done for the American people. We can’t solve the problem unless we first diagnose it. 

Building awareness around this toxic dynamic can then begin to create greater public demand for change in the political media landscape. As one example, a nationwide petition calls on media outlets to take steps to rectify the coverage imbalance by interviewing those who are actively working to find bipartisan solutions through compromise. The petition also encourages news outlets to create a recurring column or primetime segments that help bring attention to and remedy the coverage gap.

Think about what we are missing when we fail to give bipartisan action the positive attention it deserves. Crucial policy issues, including everything from energy policy and artificial intelligence to economic opportunity and rail safety, demand our attention. The American people can help flip the incentive structure and make serious legislating, not inflamed rhetoric, the kind of governing behavior that is rewarded.

That is what is required in order for our democracy to function properly. The electorate needs to be adequately informed of the role that bipartisan compromise plays in our system. This means Americans need to see pragmatic, principled leaders who leverage their positions of power in order to get things done that actually matter. We will only make true strides toward positive change if we shift the incentive structure in favor of common sense and coalition building.

Liam deClive-Lowe and Paolo Mastrangelo are the co-founders and co-presidents of American Policy Ventures, a new project which will actively work to support members of Congress working to find bipartisan solutions to our nation’s most pressing issues.

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