Divided. I must admit that this was one of the first words that came to mind while watching President Trump give his speech before Congress last week. It has nothing to do with the substance of what he said. It has nothing to do with his personality. It has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat – or of any political belief. It is based on seeing with my own eyes the physical divide between the Republicans and Democrats during the speech.
As I watched, I could see the Republicans stand and applaud while seeing the Democrats sit in their own solidarity, their own silent protest, against the President. This stark visual is indisputable truth that we are a divided nation. For everyone watching, it reinforced to all those around the country, that the polarization between the political parties that is paralyzing this country is real.
But in all fairness, though political polarization is more intense than ever, it isn’t new. Because of the physical divide of how Members of Congress are seated, you often see one party or the other stand in support of their President’s statements sending a clear message of solidarity among those of the same political philosophy. Since the mid-19th century, Democrats have been seated to the right and Republicans to the left of the podium when the President gives a speech to a joint session of Congress. Even in the day-to-day functioning of both Chambers, this physical divide between the parties is the rule - hence the creation of the phrase “two sides of the aisle”. It is a little ironic that the Democrats are on the right and the Republicans on the left.
Having philosophical differences is healthy. It is the protein that gives us the energy to work together to solve our nation’s problems. Rarely is a problem solved when all parties involved begin with the exact same belief as to how a problem should be solved. The resolution of differences, the integration of ideas, makes the foundation of any solution stronger. Our country has benefitted from the integration of differences.
Many people remember Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote that, “[a] house divided against itself cannot stand”. He adopted this from a quote in the New Testament by Matthew that says, “[e]very kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” The premise behind this statement is that we must learn to live and work together. We must learn how to integrate our differences into our daily lives so that we can work together on solving the common problems that impact all of us as humans and as Americans. But that does not mean that we must all assimilate and become the same people with the same political ideology. Our country has grown based on the integration of various cultures and beliefs.
So how do we turn the tide? How do we ensure that divisiveness and extreme polarization are lessened? A study by an Amsterdam based creative agency called XML looked at how the legislative chambers of 193 countries around the world were laid out. A commonality, with the exception of a few outliers, is that they allowed for the physical division of lawmakers which has historically led to the segregation of lawmakers by political party affiliation - which naturally encourages divisiveness. This is how our Congress operates. But what if we were to go to a lottery system and randomly assign seats to members of Congress so no physical divide and no party segregation can exist? What if we integrate Congress as this country has integrated over the last fifty years? In observations by XML, in instances where lawmakers were forced to mingle and in theory communicate - to talk to people outside their own echo chamber - relationships were developed that lead to trust and that trust to respect and that respect to solving problems based on reality, need, and not politics.
This seems simple but sometimes the simplest solutions are the hardest. Integration is not easy – whether it is social, religious or personal. It is easy to be divided – it is hard to be united. This simple change is something that Congress can do with no legislation, no involvement from any other branch of government, and no vote of the people. In this era of historic polarization and divisiveness, Congress has an opportunity to lead and help unite this country. This simple step of abolishing this symbolic divide, integrating based on the commonality that we are all Americans, will show that they are embracing unity which is a message this country is in desperate need of.