We Americans are trapped in a political dilemma. We all like representative democracy, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing.
The reason for this dissatisfaction is clear. Polls in recent years detail a polarized nation, divided both ideologically and politically. This is, as the Pew Research Center put it recently, “a defining feature of politics today.” In the public’s eye, Washington gets most of the blame for this.
Yet Congress and the political world around it reflect the rest of the country more than we’d like to believe. Our nation is divided ideologically. It’s also segregated politically, with many Americans preferring to associate with and live near people who share their views; gerrymandered districts and closed primaries intensify the effect. Our media is more partisan than it used to be. Interest groups — many of them funded by ordinary Americans who want their voices magnified — are more engaged than they were a generation ago. And though we deplore negative politics, we respond to it and even encourage our favorite partisans to engage in it.
Anyone who becomes president today does so with nearly half the country opposed to him the day he takes office. Moreover, we face a long list of issues where decisive action may be impossible: abortion, gun control, climate change, a host of budgetary and economic problems, the death penalty, tax reform, immigration, drug laws. These issues don’t just divide Congress; they divide the nation, with no clear path forward.
Our admired political system, in other words, is not working well. In Pew’s survey, the extremes make up just over a third of the American public, but because they’re disproportionately active they drive our politics. The larger, more diverse center can’t agree on a direction for the country, but its members are united by their distaste for the tone of politics and the unwillingness of politicians to compromise and break the stalemate. We are not getting the politics we want.