Obama ran on the idea that political polarization is an anomaly generated by eight years of George W. Bush. He sold himself as being just the guy to get our politics working again by stepping back from the partisan fray far enough to forge a new consensus around win-win policies. So what’s gone wrong? Not surprisingly, you get different answers from Democrats and Republicans.“It's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first. We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans.”
Democrats will tell you that our continued polarization’s a symptom of the Republican irresponsibility. As long as Republicans are determined to be the “party of no,” the only way to “tackle big problems” like the crisis in the health care delivery system and climate change is to steamroll the opposition. On this view, having been repudiated decisively at the polls in two successive national elections, Republicans have a civic obligation to get out of the way that they aren't discharging.
Republicans say our continued polarization is a symptom of Obama’s fraudulent presidential campaign and the ideological extremism he shares with the Democratic congressional leadership. Having sold himself to the electorate as a pragmatic centrist, Obama chose to govern as a liberal extremist. On this view, Obama could have overcome political polarization by living up to his campaign promises but he declined, or was too weak, to seize the opportunity.
Notice the common premise. Each side assumes, along with Obama, that prevailing political polarization is an abnormality generated not by genuine conflicts of interest among significant political constituencies, but by the political system’s inefficiency when the wrong people are in charge. Consider the way Democrats and Republicans make their cases for and against ObamaCare.
Democrats sold it on the promise that it will make the uninsured immeasurably better off, without making anyone else appreciably worse off. Anyone who likes the insurance they have, they assured us, can keep it without a measurable increase in their premiums, without any loss in the standard of medical care and without adding a dime to the deficit. Democrats would have you believe that the only people ObamaCare will hurt are depersonalized “special interests” (like the greedy insurance companies who actually seem strangely receptive to the idea). But they don’t count, apparently on the assumption that their profits somehow aren’t connected to the well-being of flesh-and-blood people.
Republicans, on the other hand, never tire of telling you that ObamaCare will end up hurting the people over the long run that its architects are trying their hardest to help by instituting a health care delivery system that’s politically authoritarian, fiscally unsustainable, will lower the general standard of medical care, retard medical innovation and restrict everyone’s freedom to secure the treatment best suited to their individual circumstances. Republicans are determined to spend the next two national elections explaining why replacing ObamaCare with a system that’s more responsive to market forces will make lots of people appreciably better off without making practically anyone worse off.
I suppose you can’t blame politicians for saying such things. There’s no better way of securing votes than by persuading voters that your side knows how to prepare and serve a political free lunch. And nobody in recent memory practiced that dark art more adroitly than Barack Obama did on the presidential campaign trail. Who else, for instance, could get away with patent nonsense like rejecting any suggestion that we might have to trade off increments of security from terrorism against traditional protections for civil liberties as a “false choice.”
But can you excuse a politician for really believing that political polarization is always a remediable condition? Can our political system really be that inefficient?