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Divided We Fall

Why Consensus Matters

By Alice M. Rivlin, Sheri Rivlin, and Allan Rivlin
Divided We Fall book cover

Partisan warfare and gridlock in Washington threaten to squander America’s opportunity to show the world that democracy can solve serious economic problems and ensure widely shared prosperity. Instead of working together to meet the challenges ahead—an aging work force, exploding inequality, climate change, rising debt—our elected leaders are sabotaging our economic future by blaming and demonizing each other in hopes of winning big in the next election. They are weakening America’s capacity for world leadership and the case for democracy here and abroad.

Alice M. Rivlin, with decades of experience in economic policy making, argues that proven economic policies could lead to sustainable American prosperity and opportunity for all, but crafting them requires the tough, time-consuming work of consensus building and bipartisan negotiation. In a divided country with shifting majorities, major policies must have bipartisan buy-in and broad public support. Otherwise we will have either destabilizing swings in policy or total gridlock in the face of challenges looming at us.

Rivlin believes that Americans can and must save our hyper-partisan politicians from themselves. She makes the case that on many practical economic issues the public is far less divided than partisan politicians and sensationalist media would have us believe. She draws attention to numerous hopeful efforts to bridge partisan and ideological divides in Washington, in state capitols and city governments, and communities around the country, and advocates a major national effort to enable citizens and future leaders to learn and practice the art of listening to each other and working together to find common ground.

This book is a practical guide for Americans across the political spectrum who are agonizing over partisan warfare, incivility, and policy gridlock and looking for ways they can help to get our democratic policy process back on a constructive track before it is too late.

Praise for Alice Rivlin and Divided We Fall

We owe a great debt to Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin for completing this manuscript left unfinished at Alice Rivlin's death. It is a fitting final contribution by a fine thinker and public servant who contributed so much to our democracy. Alice worried that "the American experiment is in danger of failing." This book can help us avert that danger, and points us to a path upward, toward success.

− William Kristol, editor at large, The Bulwark


This posthumously published book by Alice Rivlin is an eloquent cri de coeur and an urgent and timely call to renew the basic elements of consensus and common sense that permit democratic government to succeed in a society of sharply divergent viewpoints. No one knows how the current polarized impasse will end, but Rivlin’s package of ideas and reforms seems as compelling a solution as any that have been offered. This book is a meaningful contribution in a dark moment.

− Jamie Raskin, U.S. representative (D-Md.) and lead impeachment manager in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump


Alice Rivlin's final book is not only a fascinating insider's memoir but a brilliant analysis of current threats to our democracy. It calls on all of us, both inside and outside of government, to act—including specific advice on what we can do. Buy 10 copies and give them to friends. That is the legacy she wanted and deserves.

− Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow, Brookings


Alice Rivlin foresaw that we would be facing the survival of our constitutional republic. Once again giving of her enormous intellect and her deep compassion for the American people, she spent the last months of her life writing this call to action to end hyperpartisanship. She understood that given the incentives in today’s electoral politics, “We the People” must find the faith in each other to demand that our elected officials stop putting party above country and find solutions supported by most Americans.

− Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, founding executive director, National Institute for Civil Discourse


They broke the mold with Alice M. Rivlin. No single person in recent history engaged in the public arena set a better example of true public service than she. Her final book is a testament to her years of public service which were designed with the one goal of making government work for all of us. The final chapter, addressing the corrosive effects of political polarization in achieving that goal, should be required reading for all elected officials at the federal, state, and local level. Even more so, it should be required reading for all citizens.

− G. William Hoagland, senior vice president, Bipartisan Policy Center, and former chief of staff to Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.)


“Alice Rivlin was one of the true great leaders of a lifetime. Her practical, optimistic, and inspirational voice shines through in this book, and its message is needed more than ever. Every single project, commission, and institution was better for having Alice involved, and the nation would be better if we followed her words of wisdom.”

− Maya MacGuineas, president, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget


“How fortunate we are to have Alice Rivlin’s final, landmark treatise on core threats to American democracy. Infused with insights and perspective from her decades of unparalleled leadership in Washington, Divided We Fall calls on us to revive the habit and practice of bipartisanship. Failure, Alice warns, will degrade Americans’ economic and social welfare, and imperil our democratic experiment. All of us have something to learn from Alice’s brilliant, clarion call for change.”

− Sarah Binder, professor of political science, George Washington University, and senior fellow, Brookings


“Sheri and Allan Rivlin have done a great service in editing and completing Alice Rivlin’s last book. Drawing on her decades in public service, Alice Rivlin reflects on the continued necessity for bipartisanship even in a hyperpartisan era, driving her points home with examples from personal experience and evidence from scholarship. Taking stock of major economic and policy problems, she urges partisans to engage in civil debate, seek common ground, share responsibility for difficult choices, and achieve durable solutions.”

− Frances E. Lee, author, Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign, and professor of politics and public affairs, Princeton University


“Alice Rivlin was the most devoted public servant I had the honor to know and work with during my public service career in Washington. She was totally committed to challenging both politicians and the public to do whatever was necessary to make our democracy work. This final book by Alice is not just her prescription for fixing our democracy, it is her fervent last prayer that we cannot afford to ignore the dangers . . . it is we the people who must in the final words of her book ‘defend our constitutional system, seek truth and justice, and see America succeed.’”

− Leon E. Panetta, chairman, Panetta Institute for Public Policy, and former secretary of defense, CIA director, Office of Management and Budget director, and U.S. congressman


“In these pages are the core symbols of Alice Rivlin’s life and legacy: Courage, Integrity, Determination. This diminutive, iconic, powerful presence was revered in Washington, D.C. In my first Senate term, I worked with her in several venues. Added to those above traits, there was a palpable blend of kindness, fairness, and balance. In this book she even describes herself sometimes as maybe naive. No one else would ever confirm that observation!

I’ll slip into the western vernacular and just say this: She had a plenty tough job when I first met her, and she was eager and able to speak truth to power. We have a phrase in this part of the country, ‘If you have a bear of a job, hire a grizzly.’ She was all that. And she loved the code, ‘If you have integrity, nothing else matters—and if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.’ She was a pure joy to work with and her presence gave birth and nurture to so many remarkable ideas and honest counsel as found in these pages.”

− Alan Simpson, former senator (R-Wyo.) and co-chair, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform


“This book is incredible in many ways. It is a great diagnosis of our current condition, and an even more important and necessary wake-up call and call to action. We are allowed one more opportunity to appreciate Alice’s acumen for diagnosing problems, her concern about government dysfunction, her clear understanding of the geographic dimension of economic inequality, as well as her many recommendations for action. I love this book!”

− Richard Florida, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, and author, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It


“Alice’s last book reinforces her brilliant reputation as a policy bridge builder.”

− Donna E. Shalala, former U.S. representative (D-Fla.), former U.S. secretary for health and human services and past president of the University of Miami


“This is a smart book that explains how stupid political fights in Washington are wasting time instead of getting work done and solving problems for the American People. Rivlin gives us concrete action steps to fix our broken politics so we can get our economy moving, invest in American workers, and bring back manufacturing and technology jobs to the cities and towns across the middle of America.”

− Representative Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)


“Alice Rivlin believed that getting the numbers right led to the best public policy. As the first director of the Congressional Budget Office she set a standard of fairness and nonpartisanship that was a service to our country. Under Alice’s leadership CBO was an arbiter between conservatives and liberals leading us on a path to good policy and fiscal responsibility. At its best CBO has continued to uphold the bedrock principles Alice put in place.”

− John Kasich, former Ohio governor and U.S. representative (R-Ohio)


“Alice was truly an inspiration. Her passion to bridge the divide within our nation, especially around complicated issues like our economy and healthcare, was only surpassed by her humility. Her ability to clarify was unmatched. Having worked with Alice throughout the years, I am forever indebted to her for her clarity and brilliance. What a legacy she has left!”

− Marjorie Margolies, Fels Institute of Government, University of Pennsylvania


“In this manifesto, Alice Rivlin warns that the American Experiment is in danger of failing, but with characteristic optimism maps a route to safety and prosperity. Alice is, alas, gone, but her perspective and insight lives on in this call for ‘a new patriotism’ to defend American democracy and finally deal with the nation’s big economic problems. Even amid today’s bitter partisanship and polarization, she argues that old-style bipartisanship is not only essential if we are to solve today’s economic problems, but actually achievable. Alice shines a light through today’s darkness, showing the way for citizens to push politicians to get to work on the nation’s persistent economic problems.”

− David Wessel, director, Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at Brookings


“In her long and storied career, Alice Rivlin embodied the best of public service and public-spiritedness. In this book, the capstone of her life in politics, policy, and scholarship, lovingly completed by her son and daughter-in-law after her death, Alice reflects on the country during her career, examines economics and politics through her own experiences and the best work of scholars in these areas, and offers ideas for improving the process and the country to get through these times of threat to our fundamentals. If you care, as she did, this is a must-read.”

− Norman Ornstein, emeritus scholar, American Enterprise Institute

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