COMMENTARY: Ideological extremists have hijacked the U.S. political process

This is the summer of our discontent. As Americans celebrate July 4, they are mad at their leaders, mad at their government and mad at each other. A recent Pew poll finds that “public trust in government remains near historic lows.” Just 20 percent of Americans trust the government to “do the right thing just about always or most of the time.” The comparable figures were 40 percent in 2000 and almost 80 percent in the early 1960s. There has been a long-term loss of trust.

At the same time — as is well known — political polarization has soared. Republicans and Democrats increasingly harbor dire and even hateful views of each other. Among Republicans, 58 percent have a “very unfavorable” view of Democrats, up from 21 percent in 1994, reports another Pew survey. Democrats’ views of Republicans are nearly identical: 55 percent label Republicans as “very unfavorable,” roughly a tripling since 1994’s 17 percent. Poisonous politics strains personal friendships.

Historians will argue for decades over what drained public confidence in government. On the other hand, pinpointing responsibility for political polarization is easier. It’s the “political class,” including elected officials, political consultants, scholars, and pundits (print, cable and digital). Too often, they abandon rhetorical self-restraint for inflammatory verbosity. The bloviation sets the tone of debate, which is the political equivalent of trash talk.

Ironically, the people who are most politically engaged — the people who consider themselves most morally “responsible” — pose the greatest threat to the political system, weakening its ability to compromise and condemning it to paralysis. The fringes of both parties have acquired power, and to some extent, disenfranchised the larger and ideologically messier middle.

By Pew’s estimate, this messy middle — meaning that its members are neither consistent liberals nor consistent conservatives — remained the largest bloc of Americans at about 40 percent of the total in 2014. Here is what Pew says about the anomalous position of people in the middle:

“The majority do not have uniformly conservative or liberal views. Most do not see either party as a threat to the nation. And more believe their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want.

“Yet many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field, relatively distant and disengaged, while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process” — voting, contributing, volunteering.

The stabilizing center of U.S. politics is marginalized. Its considerable power is dissipated and silently flows to activists of both parties, who increasingly define themselves by demonizing their opponents. Cooperation becomes harder.

Of course, dissent is essential. Democracy without dissent is not democracy. But dissent should be disciplined. It should not indulge in fantasies that make partisans feel good but are profoundly misleading. This inevitable disillusion is where we are today.

To take two familiar examples: The Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare while also reducing premiums and expanding coverage was never possible. It was make-believe. Similarly, the Democratic refusal to deal with the escalating costs of Medicare and Social Security is crushing other worthy government programs — a strange position for a pro-government party.

What’s worrisome and not especially recognized is that many members of the political class have a vested interest in the status quo of division. Who they’re against defines who they are on both left and right. This protects elected officials against primary challenges by even greater ideological purists; it generates audiences and incomes for pundits; it makes activists feel morally superior. Who wants to give that up?

Not surprisingly, the system has become self-perpetuating. It feeds on mutual recriminations. On this July 4, the Founders — who had deep disagreements, but compromised — would doubtlessly disapprove.

Robert Samuelson writes a column on economics for the Washington Post.

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