Is American Politics Polarized?

Many Europeans have asked me what's going on in this presidential election, remarking that America seems to be polarized. Initially, immobilized seems the better word, but then I have to note that the Republican Party is polarized--Tea Party advocates vs. so called "moderate" Republicans.

Indeed the Republican Convention this week could be quite a raucous event (like the ones the Democrats used to have) and one worth watching, with more than the throwing of cucumber sandwiches at each other. The Republicans have not had anything like this schism in a hundred years, since Theodore Roosevelt broke ranks with the Republicans controlling the 1912 convention and launched the Bull Moose Party, also known as the Progressive Party. The move split the GOP vote that year, securing a victory for the Democrat's presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson. (T.R. came in second, beating William Taft, the other Republican nominee.)

Candidate Mitt Romney, labelled a moderate Republican by today's standards, has tried to head off this kind of disaster by naming someone with close ties to the Tea Party as his running mate. But will it work? My guess is not without several hypocritical compromises. Will the Republican "moderates" interpret these concessions as giving the GOP away to the Tea Party? The two sides, "right" and "far right," fought this out at the Republican convention in 1952, pitting Senator Taft against General Eisenhower. But now, as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer noted, Ryan, Romney's vice-presidential nominee, could become "the face of Republicanism for a generation."

Another scenario is if this division shifts to between "far right" and "far, far right" at the convention in Tampa from August 27-30. In this situation, it is plausible the Tea Party fundamentalists could accuse both Romney and Ryan of being "too liberal." Got that? We can expect a lot of ill-defined words--all simplistic expressions of "good" or "bad"--to be flung around at the convention. Implicitly, or possibly explicitly, the far, far right may threaten to walk out of the convention.

However, after much hand wringing, tears, and stern words warning that a walkout would be tantamount to giving victory to the Democrats, as it did in 1912, promises would be made by Romney and Ryan to regain the support of the fundamentalists. Pictures would be taken of the forced unity. After swallowing so many distasteful concessions, "regular" Republicans--in this case meaning those middle of the road, moderate or non-Tea Party GOP members--may well leave the convention wondering just what their party stands for now.

The only comforting grace may be that the Democrats don't really know what they stand for either. What Roosevelt, Truman and Johnsonn stood for has been pushed aside. Clinton moved the party to the center and won his second term. But at what price?

The Democrats will convene in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 4 to renominate Barack Obama and presumably Joe Biden. There will be a lot of speeches. I expect the President will be stirring and Bill Clinton will be amusing--but just how many of the other scheduled speeches will be carried by the television networks remains to be seen.

So how can I reply when asked what is going on in American politics at this critical juncture? Is it really polarized? I wish I could answer with a definitive yes, but I can't. Except for the passionate ideology of the Tea Partiers, there seem to be very few Americans who feel they even have a stake in our democracy. Where are our citizens who really care about education, health care, the environment, social services, and jobs, the last of which remains essential for today's struggling economy?

Neither Obama nor Romney is focusing on basic issues (unlike FDR did in his speeches). They have so far failed to invoke the morality America can represent when at its best. Their speeches, made to sound passionate and engaging, are spongy, having been thoroughly massaged by speechwriters. Also, regard the striking similarities between Obama's and Romney's budget proposals, specifically how each includes drastic cuts to public services, as noted by Jeffery Sachs in the Financial Times earlier this month. (Just think about the money we could redistribute to these cut areas if we kicked the habit, "the high," received by being an imperial power.)

The only polarization I see is a sad one. There is a small, but indeed passionate, minority whose only values are expressed negatively--Against! Against! Against! is their cry. On the other side? Indifference. Feelings like I can't be bothered, I don't feel I have any stakes in the mess...and at best, a coolheaded, intellectual approach. This isn't real polarization, but it is a recipe for disaster in any democracy.

Will either party's convention address the basic questions and values that underlie the tiresome--and often just nasty--debate over the budget and Medicare? The two presidential candidates and their advisors seem to have forgotten that politics is not just arguing about key issues, slugging it out as if they were in a boxing ring. The more winning politics (ask FDR--read his speeches) is to address the moral questions behind the issues. For example, all we hear nowadays is the nitty-gritty battle around Medicare when what is really at stake is our right to basic health care, a system in which the government is responsible for taking leadership, but in full cooperation with the private sector.

There is an ancient set of questions to guide us in finding our personal identity: Who Am I? Where Did I Come From? Where Am I Going? What better place then the national conventions for some senior office holder to examine the same questions and ask about the soul of our country: What is America today? Where did we come from? Where are we going?