In their piece in yesterday’s New York Times, Jon Haidt and Marc Hetherington present clear empirical evidence of the political polarization that plagues contemporary American politics. They offer some viable solutions as well, but end on a note of pessimism regarding the likelihood that things will look much different after November’s election.
You can think of our political system as addicted to conflict. For politicians, obstruction is an effective legislative strategy. For the corporate media and its punditocracy, promoting conflict is a good business model. And let’s face it, because everyone is convinced that the other side struck first, hitting them back – even harder – curbs the nasty cravings of righteous indignation. As any committed Democrat who has followed Mitt Romney’s travails over the last two weeks can tell you, conflict just feels goood.
Luckily, 21rst century celebrity scandal culture has taught us all what to do. With any addiction, the first step in breaking the habit is acknowledging the problem. And while the airwaves and blogosphere are filled with people bemoaning our legislative gridlock and the breakdown of political civility and cooperation, every four years we hit the wall of denial. When election time nears, candidates from our two major parties propose ideologically sensible policy platforms that take no account of our polarized political culture, and because of this failure to recognize that we have a problem, these idealized political agendas have almost no chance of being enacted into law.
In foreign policy, there has long been a distinction between realism and idealism. Rather than let ideology guide our interactions with other countries, realists accept that the world of international relations is a complicated and chaotic place filled with conflicting dynamics of power and self-interest that we ignore at our own peril. What I am arguing is that we need a realist school of domestic policy as well.
What I ache for as a citizen is to hear our Presidential candidates address political polarization as a real policy problem – a genuine obstacle to enacting their agenda that must be acknowledged and overcome. I am waiting to hear journalists ask President Obama and Governor Romney, specifically, how they plan to enact their agenda, not in the political vacuum they assume in their stump speeches, but in the real world of hyper-partisan political gridlock we actually live in. I know that politicians and pundits want to avoid the issue – saying it is beyond any politicians’ ability to control the other side’s behavior – but without some recognition that this is the real political terrain that must be negotiated, their best laid plans for investing in our future or weaning people off government dependence are little more than fairy tales.
Without feeling hyperbolic, I think it is apt to characterize political polarization and bipartisan demonization as the primary obstacles to our government’s ability to address this nation’s long list of pressing but imminently addressable problems. But until our leaders recognize that we have a problem, and generate both the political will and a genuine strategy to deal with it, we will remain where we are, putting off dealing with exploding budget deficits and melting polar ice caps for another day, while we lurk through alleys of unforced political gaffes and old youtube videos looking to score cheap political points.
American politics needs an intervention. We need domestic policy realism as much as foreign policy realism.