The existential polarization of America

America is in the midst of an existential crisis, unable to agree on what it wants to be. Washington is more divided than ever before, pulled apart by two different visions of the role government should play. One rests on a deep skepticism and the other embodies faith in government’s power to serve society.

Until this conflict is resolved, America will remain a divided society. It’s a recipe for disaster, making it difficult to address pressing economic and fiscal issues.

This, as Bush 43 used to say, requires “some ‘splaining.”

Sure, a bill passed late on New Year’s Day averted widespread tax increases and delayed spending cuts that threatened to take a bite out of the economy. But critical issues, including deficit reduction and growing the economy, remain unresolved.

The fiscal cliff deal didn’t solve anything. In the short term, America is struggling with a weak economy and we have a long-term problem with out-of-control debt that is growing faster than GDP.

The White House will tangle anew with congressional Republicans over a confluence of three looming fiscal deadlines: raising the $16.4 trillion federal borrowing limit, averting automatic March 1 spending cuts to defense and domestic programs, and renewing the congressional resolution that has been keeping the government operating and expires on March 27.

Actually, the government could exhaust its ability to pay its bills by mid-February, forcing it to use a series of accounting gimmicks that, if used in the private sector, result in jail time. One includes delaying tax refunds. Happy Valentine’s Day, America.

After the 2011 fight over raising the debt limit, the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. government’s blue-chip AAA bond rating because it feared that America’s dysfunctional political system could not deliver a credible plan to reduce the federal debt. Standard & Poor’s cited an overabundance of “political brinksmanship” and warned that “the differences between political parties have proven … extraordinarily difficult to bridge.”

The newest round of budget battles could make the fiscal cliff deal look like a morning in Sunday school. In the House, the Republicans are a divided party with 25 percent of their members committed to the Tea Party and its implacable opposition to any tax increases. They won’t agree to raise the debt limit without equivalent offsetting spending cuts that Democrats are sure to resist. The Democrats are loath to rein in pension and health care entitlements that most economists agree are unsustainable.

The fiscal cliff fight revealed the weakness of our political system in a way that has seldom been done before. There is no consensus on what’s driving this unprecedented polarization.

Some point to everything from the growing role of money in politics, to changes in the way news is covered in the Internet age, to partisan gerrymandering. For example, repeated redrawing of districts by both parties has created conservative districts that are far more conservative and liberal districts that are far more liberal, with the resulting chasm between the two. Indeed the number of swing House seats has dropped dramatically in the last two decades.

But it is useless to focus on any single cause because many factors are now at play, all reinforcing one another, threatening the country’s ability to solve critical pressing issues.

As far back as the 18th century, the Founding Fathers, with their distrust of centralized government power, designed a system that makes paralysis the normal state of affairs. Each house of Congress must separately pass a bill before the President can sign it into law.

The dark truth is that unless the political class in Washington can arrive at a reasonable compromise, we are just marking time until the next fiscal crisis. And it will undoubtedly be one in which working men and women will draw the short straw.

originally published: January 19, 2013

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