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A divided Congress, a president both cheered and chastened, and an American public still deeply split — those are the election results writ large.
You could argue that these results, which put the House and Senate in the hands of different parties, will lead to further divisions. But, ever the optimist, I’m hoping that’s not true.
Yes, some of the more moderate members of the House and Senate are now gone, which could make it harder to get things done, assuming Congress actually wants to do something.
But here’s why I hold out hope for better cooperation among members of Congress: Many more women and veterans will take office when the new House convenes in January.
By the time all the votes are counted, it’s expected that more than 100 women will have been elected to the House. When my mother, Lindy Boggs, won a special election in Louisiana in 1973 she joined only 15 other women in the House. They were small in number but those women and others who joined them later were able to highlight issues affecting U.S. women, children and families and to work on them in a bipartisan fashion.
And the women of the Senate, who regularly meet for dinner, form the last bastion of bipartisanship on that side of the Capitol dome.
That’s not uncommon. Data over the years from state legislatures shows us that women tend to come together to get things done more often than their male colleagues.
The new women House members come from all parts of the country, and have varied ethnicities, backgrounds and occupations, including service in the military.
And that’s the other hopeful sign coming out of this election — the increased number of veterans who will continue serving their country but now in elective office.
At various points in American history, veterans occupied many House seats. After World War II, two big elections brought in waves of men fresh off the battlefield—the Republican class of 1946 and the Democratic class of 1948. Much of the postwar legislation that rebuilt Europe and reshaped the U.S. came through bipartisan efforts of men who had literally been in the trenches together.
Their patriotism firm, these vets knew that the enemy wasn’t the person across the aisle but the dictator across the sea. And their voices stayed strong through many national security debates down through the decades.
Another surge of vets arrived during and after Vietnam. In 1971 almost three-quarters of House members had served in the military. When the current Congress convened the numbers had dropped to less than 19 percent.
This year more than 400 veterans ran in primaries for the House and Senate, and over 200 were on ballots yesterday, according to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. That’s encouraging because women and men in the military learn the importance of cohesion, or working together.
One more encouraging sign for those of us who would like to see the deep divisions in our politics diminished: Three states passed referenda requiring nonpartisan commissions to draw the lines of their congressional districts.
The way state legislatures draw district lines to protect their majority parties contributes to polarization. So all the Republicans are pushed into no-lose districts for their party, and the same goes for Democrats. The only way a candidate can get into trouble is to violate partisan purity on the right for Republicans or the left for Democrats.
In states that already have nonpartisan commissions, districts tend to be drawn much more evenly, which forces candidates to play to the middle rather than to their party’s purists.
So, yes, for those of us who believe the Founders had it right—that Congress should function as a branch of government co-equal to the executive and judiciary—yesterday’s results can certainly be discouraging. The divided results could mean that Congress doesn’t function at all.
But I prefer to look at the bright spots. So here’s to the women, here’s to the vets, and especially here’s to the women who are vets. I’m counting on you for common sense and cohesion.