Political dysfunction

Robert J. Samuelson on why are political divisions are growing, even as most Americans get along with each other pretty well, despite their political differences:

It’s not that the public has become sharply polarized. In 2010, 42 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, 35 percent moderates and 20 percent liberals, reports Gallup. In 1992, the figures were 43, 36 and 17 percent. So there’s a widening disconnect between the polarized political system and the less-polarized public. There are at least four reasons for this.

First, politicians depend increasingly on their activist “bases” for votes, money and job security (read: no primary challenger). But activist agendas are well to the left or right of center. So when politicians pander to their bases, they often offend the center. In one poll, 70 percent of registered voters said Republicans’ positions were too conservative at least some of the time; 76 percent likewise thought Democratic positions often “too liberal.”

Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to “save the planet,” “protect the unborn,” “reclaim the Constitution.” When goals become moral imperatives, there’s no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they’re immoral. They’re cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three.

Third, cable television and the Internet impose entertainment values on politics. Constant chatter reigns. Conflict and shock language prevail; analysis is boring.

Finally, politicians overpromise. The federal budget has run deficits in all but five years since 1961. The main reason: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise spending and cut taxes. To obscure their own expediency, both parties blame the other.

Politicians have always assailed one another. But the totality of these changes has altered the system’s character. Many players have an interest in perpetuating disagreements and differences. Advocacy groups and their allies derive psychic rewards (a sense of superiority) and political benefits (more members and contributions) from demonizing their adversaries. Cable TV needs combat, not comity.

The impulse is not to govern from the center, which still represents most Americans, but from “the base.” President Obama’s health-care “reform” was a good example. Strongly favored by Democrats, it was consistently opposed by about half of Americans. To be fair, George W. Bush governed the same way.

The result is mass discontent. Overwrought expectations are regularly disappointed. Liberal and conservative bases feel abused because their agendas are rarely entirely enacted. They are too radical or unrealistic. The center feels frustrated that the bases’ disproportionate power impedes action on long-standing problems (budgets, immigration, energy). Can next week’s election resolve this stalemate? It seems doubtful.

via Robert J. Samuelson – The dysfunction of American politics.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    There’s that Gallup poll Porcell keeps referring to. Interesting to see it compared with Gallup’s findings in ’92 – to see what’s happened over the past eighteen years. Conservatives and moderates have both declined by a point, while liberals are the only ones who’ve experienced growth – three points. Yes, I’m sure it’s all too little to be meaningful. But still, I feel kind of warm and fuzzy inside. :-)

  • Tom Hering

    There’s that Gallup poll Porcell keeps referring to. Interesting to see it compared with Gallup’s findings in ’92 – to see what’s happened over the past eighteen years. Conservatives and moderates have both declined by a point, while liberals are the only ones who’ve experienced growth – three points. Yes, I’m sure it’s all too little to be meaningful. But still, I feel kind of warm and fuzzy inside. :-)

  • Dan Kempin

    “The impulse is not to govern from the center, which still represents most Americans, but from “the base.” President Obama’s health-care “reform” was a good example. Strongly favored by Democrats, it was consistently opposed by about half of Americans. To be fair, George W. Bush governed the same way.”

    How did president Bush govern in the same way? Didn’t Ted Kennedy write the education bill? Wasn’t he harrangued by conservatives for moving to the center on the prescription drug entitlement? President Bush went out of his way to work across the aisle, and the only significant problems he had with his own “base” was the perception that he was TOO willing to govern from the center.

    Sorry, I don’t think you can just scratch this up to “discontent” and “polarization” and “aw, shucks, it’s the same on both sides.”

    Politicians have always depended on their base. (That’s why it is called their base.) Politics has always, contrary to Mr. Samuelson’t assertion, been moralistic. Politicians have always assailed one another and over promised, and I’ll go out on a limb and predict that they will continue to do so.

    But George W. Bush did NOT govern in the same way that Barak Obama is governing. (Wouldn’t that very assertion be an affront to the base on BOTH sides?)

    The only real political factor that could be called a “game changer,” as it were, is the new media–written off as the straw man of “chatter . . . conflict and shock language.” Perhaps this is just the bias of a career print journalist, for which he may be forgiven, but it doesn’t improve my impression that this analysis is inane.

  • Dan Kempin

    “The impulse is not to govern from the center, which still represents most Americans, but from “the base.” President Obama’s health-care “reform” was a good example. Strongly favored by Democrats, it was consistently opposed by about half of Americans. To be fair, George W. Bush governed the same way.”

    How did president Bush govern in the same way? Didn’t Ted Kennedy write the education bill? Wasn’t he harrangued by conservatives for moving to the center on the prescription drug entitlement? President Bush went out of his way to work across the aisle, and the only significant problems he had with his own “base” was the perception that he was TOO willing to govern from the center.

    Sorry, I don’t think you can just scratch this up to “discontent” and “polarization” and “aw, shucks, it’s the same on both sides.”

    Politicians have always depended on their base. (That’s why it is called their base.) Politics has always, contrary to Mr. Samuelson’t assertion, been moralistic. Politicians have always assailed one another and over promised, and I’ll go out on a limb and predict that they will continue to do so.

    But George W. Bush did NOT govern in the same way that Barak Obama is governing. (Wouldn’t that very assertion be an affront to the base on BOTH sides?)

    The only real political factor that could be called a “game changer,” as it were, is the new media–written off as the straw man of “chatter . . . conflict and shock language.” Perhaps this is just the bias of a career print journalist, for which he may be forgiven, but it doesn’t improve my impression that this analysis is inane.

  • DonS

    Well said, Dan. Samuelson is usually solid, but this article is a bit whiny and doesn’t squarely lay the blame where it belongs — on the party in power.

  • DonS

    Well said, Dan. Samuelson is usually solid, but this article is a bit whiny and doesn’t squarely lay the blame where it belongs — on the party in power.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan, to hear you tell it (@2), Bush only governed from the center, routinely repudiating his base, while Obama only governs from the far-left, pandering to his. Is that your contention?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan, to hear you tell it (@2), Bush only governed from the center, routinely repudiating his base, while Obama only governs from the far-left, pandering to his. Is that your contention?

  • Dan Kempin

    tODD, #4,

    I don’t know what goaded me into posting on a political thread–a topic I usually avoid. I think I was a little cranky.

    You are hearing more than I’m telling, though. Maybe you’re just being driven by your “polarized . . . idealogue . . . conflict . . . and blaming . . . demonizing.” It prevents us from reaching “comity.”

    Regarding your question, I am not contending anything more than to assert that president Obama and president Bush governed in the same way is an assault on my sanity. It would be simplistic to say that about ANY two administrations, and we could go on for a very long time talking about the profound and substantial differences in their respective approaches–for better or for worse. “X (my guy) did this, but to be fair Y (your guy) did it too,” has become a very tired and childish meme to me. Especially when it isn’t even true.

    Yes, I am tired of the whole “bash Bush as proxy for a legitimate argument,” and perhaps that provoked my response. (Reflect on whether you’ve heard me bash president Obama before you jump on that.)

    But my point is simply that this article is drivel–nothing more or less. Drivel awash in a sea of political drivel, perhaps, but for some reason I found it annoying.

  • Dan Kempin

    tODD, #4,

    I don’t know what goaded me into posting on a political thread–a topic I usually avoid. I think I was a little cranky.

    You are hearing more than I’m telling, though. Maybe you’re just being driven by your “polarized . . . idealogue . . . conflict . . . and blaming . . . demonizing.” It prevents us from reaching “comity.”

    Regarding your question, I am not contending anything more than to assert that president Obama and president Bush governed in the same way is an assault on my sanity. It would be simplistic to say that about ANY two administrations, and we could go on for a very long time talking about the profound and substantial differences in their respective approaches–for better or for worse. “X (my guy) did this, but to be fair Y (your guy) did it too,” has become a very tired and childish meme to me. Especially when it isn’t even true.

    Yes, I am tired of the whole “bash Bush as proxy for a legitimate argument,” and perhaps that provoked my response. (Reflect on whether you’ve heard me bash president Obama before you jump on that.)

    But my point is simply that this article is drivel–nothing more or less. Drivel awash in a sea of political drivel, perhaps, but for some reason I found it annoying.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X