The gap between these views appears unbridgeable. It is not, nor are the differences between the two sides as wide as they appear.
That is because most Americans find themselves somewhere between the extremes, able to see merit in both conservative and progressive ideas. When I was in office, I often found myself thinking that many of my constituents were conservative, moderate and liberal all at the same time. That hasn’t changed. As a whole, Americans do not want excessive government or heavy-handed bureaucracy, but they do want programs that help them, like Social Security and Medicare. They are dedicated to both individual freedom and opportunity and to community obligation, and they don’t see them as mutually contradictory. More than anything else, especially these days, they want to see moderation and cooperation from their political leaders.
There may be dysfunction in Washington, but the system can still work. When policymakers gather (I’ve seen this countless times) ideology fades, pragmatism rises, and the question becomes, What can we do to fix the situation? That’s where most Americans find themselves. They do not see government as evil, though they are often disappointed in its practice and its practitioners. They are wary of excessive government, but again and again they turn to government at some level to help solve the problems they complain about, and they want it to work effectively and efficiently.
In the end, Congress usually ends up about where most Americans are and want it to be. So I’m not surprised to find how, when dire problems confront them, both conservatives and progressives in Washington find their inner pragmatist.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University Bloomington. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.