For the next two years, the chances are good that the U.S. government will be almost completely paralyzed. After the midterm elections, power is more perfectly divided between a president and Congress that detest each other. Each sees its main job as blocking the other’s ambitions. The Republican majorities on Capitol Hill will pass bills to make a point; the Democratic president will veto them.
The State of the Union address and the response to it set the pattern. The president laughed contemptuously at Congress, and Congress contemptuously laughed back. The prospect is for more of the dysfunction the country has already endured, carried to another level.
What are the roots of this dysfunction, and what’s the answer? Many frustrated centrists blame an excess of ideology. The fundamental problem, they argue, is strongly held opinions at the increasingly distant ends of the political spectrum, with politicians and voters aligning themselves more closely around those poles.
Increasing polarization – an observable fact in the U.S. – obviously makes government more difficult in a system based on divided powers. So the theory is true in that trivial sense. The deeper question is, what’s driving the increase in polarization? Here the popular story may get things backward. Ideology isn’t driving polarization; polarization is driving ideology.
The salient characteristic of America’s widening political divide – despite appearances to the contrary – isn’t that liberals and conservatives disagree about everything. It’s that they dislike each other for their views and ways of life, and don’t care to disguise the fact. Partisan sorting by region and locality is both an expression of this trend and the reason it’s likely to continue. In their daily lives, metropolitan liberals and rural or suburban conservatives have no need or occasion to meet, much less get on with one another – and, increasingly, that’s exactly how both sides would have it.
In the U.S., progressives and conservatives are defined as much by culture as by politics – by the kind of jobs they do, the kind of clothes they wear, the beer they drink, the music they listen to and the TV shows they watch. As the tribes coalesce, political differences are seized upon and exaggerated as badges of identity. The cultural sorting comes first, the political polarization second. Intellectual in-breeding then drives the tribes farther apart.
To be sure, liberals and conservatives have different political values and attach different weights to the values they have in common. This has been intriguingly documented by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. And both sides seem convinced that the differences are growing. The question is whether these competing values are really as incompatible as both sides want to believe.
Even if they were, some kind of accommodation would have to be found. But I’m asking whether the differences are as fatal to political discourse as the tribes, intent on cultural segregation, choose to believe.
Every kind of practical politics is about trade-offs (and still would be even if the entire country was ideologically aligned). Ideas about the proper role of government, for instance, have to balance concern for individual liberty against collective well-being. Almost nobody thinks that individual freedom is all that matters, or that collective well-being overrides every other concern. Almost nobody believes in laissez faire; almost nobody believes in central planning.
As individuals, most Americans, like most Europeans, make sense of the world through ideological compromise. What’s the alternative? Once you accept that a balance has to be struck, that no single value trumps another, and that getting it right can be difficult, it’s harder to see somebody who disagrees with you as standing outside the realm of what’s permissible.
Democracies don’t need agreement. They do need tolerance of disagreement. The politically engaged – progressives and conservatives alike – mock the disenchanted majority for asking, “Why can’t we all just get along?” In one way, they’re right: Politics divides, and it should. In another way, they’re wrong. Getting along doesn’t require milquetoast moderation, flaccid centrism or “moving beyond left and right.” However, it does require some willingness to compromise, some curiosity about what might be valuable in the other side’s point of view, and some minimal attention to the civic virtues of tolerance and restraint.
Without those virtues, which have never been more out of favor, it’s easy to get locked into the dysfunctional cycle that Washington exemplifies. In any system of democratic government, you’re in trouble once blocking the other tribe’s agenda assumes greater importance than advancing any aspect of your own. In the American system of government, it’s fatal. That’s where things now stand – and the most worrying thing is that the politically engaged, almost without exception, are fine with it.