A Brief History of Bipartisanship

When partisan contempt has been darkest, surprising collaborations have improved prosperity for millions

A Brief History of Bipartisanship

Toxic partisanship continues to deepen in America. We are in a period of unusual political bitterness. While our leaders call each other names and prey upon our fears, we face massive issues like poverty, debt, climate change, immigration and healthcare that seem impossible to solve. For many of us, we don’t feel like we’ve ever seen a functional government. However, our own history teaches us bipartisan action can happen in swift and surprising ways on the most intractable of issues. 

I want to take a quick tour through our history to highlight moments where our leaders found common ground in unlikely moments. 

Lincoln’s Team of Rivals

Republican Abraham Lincoln beat three Republicans to win the nomination and then a Democrat to win the presidency in 1860. Once elected, he appointed all three rivals as well as a prominent Democrat to his cabinet. It would be as if Elizabeth Warren was elected president and appointed Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Mitt Romney to her cabinet.

World War II Recovery

The Marshall Plan, which gave billions in aid to help rebuild Western Europe after the war, passed with bipartisan support where the Republicans controlled Congress and the Democrats controlled the White House. Most consider the Marshall Plan very successful because the countries involved experienced a rise in their gross national products of 15 to 25 percent during the plan.

Outlawing Discrimination

The Civil Rights Act was a landmark civil rights law that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It was passed with over 60% of both parties voting for it. The bill was supported by northern Democrats but was fiercely opposed by southern Democrats. It could not be passed without Republican support. Republican leaders joined forces with northern Democrats to pass the bill with 71 votes in the Senate. 

Saving Aid to the Poor

Originally established by in the ’20s, discontinued during the Great Depression and re-established in the 1960s, the food stamp program came under fire from Republicans for being too costly. In 1977, common ground was found by Democratic senator George McGovern and Republican senator Bob Dole, who together advocated for streamlining the program by cutting costs, resolving eligibility problems, and making it easier for participants to receive their food stamps.

Saving Retirement Benefits

Republican President Reagan campaigned to reduce the size of government yet confronted a large Democratic majority in the House who fiercely supported Social Security. Social Security was going to run a deficit if nothing was done. Despite this and other differences, a bipartisan compromise on Social Security was reached in 1983. It stands in hindsight as about as striking a breakthrough imaginable in a deeply polarized atmosphere. The 1983 agreement succeeded in extending the trust fund’s solvency for the next few generations.

Saving Welfare

Despite a bitterly divided government in 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress passed and Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law one of the most sweeping changes to the country’s welfare system. The legislation, which ended a 60-year federal guarantee of aid to the poor, angered many Democrats, but also irked conservatives who considered the bill’s incentives to be too generous. Regardless, nearly every House and Senate Republican voted in favor of the measure, and a majority of Senate Democrats supported it, too. After the bill’s passage, the country saw a sharp decline in poverty rates and in the number of people on the welfare rolls.

Massive Education Reform

One of Republican President George W. Bush’s first initiatives after taking office was an overhaul of standards-based education programs. It stalled until Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, one of the strongest proponents of education reform and also one of the president’s most powerful detractors, lent his name to the bill that it gained enough support to pass with bipartisan support. 

Reducing Money in Politics

Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold and Republican Sen. John McCain, both ardent supporters of campaign finance reform, believed they needed a bipartisan reform bill to address the problem of money in politics. The bipartisan bill passed in 2002 changed how donations could be used to support political parties and candidates and demanded that television campaign ads clearly identify who paid for them.

Massive Medical Research Expansion

A sweeping bipartisan agreement to expand medical research was signed into law in December 2016. The bill easily passed both chambers of Congress due to the bipartisan initiatives that were included in it. It provided funds to expand biomedical research to find cures and treatments for various illnesses and diseases as well as to study the human brain and mental disorders. It also allowed for more collaboration among government and private-sector researchers and provided for faster drug approval. 

“The Night is Always Darkest Before the Dawn”

While things may feel hopeless, history shows us how we can step outside of our partisan boxes and into a post-partisan world. Stay hopeful.


A shoutout to this Bipartisan Policy Center research for greatly informing this article.

Jake Sandler is CEO and cofounder of ChangeRoots, a startup on a mission to end toxic partisanship by empowering Millennials to wield micro donations as positive and negative reinforcement for politicians.

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