Skip to main content

Shortly after the founding of the Republic, Americans divided into political camps that then made peaceful political war upon each other. So it has been with varying degrees of division ever since.

There have been times of co-operation across the political divide, and times when co-operation has been difficult. Today, Americans are very sharply divided about fundamental questions, and that division will be reflected next Tuesday in the presidential race.

Whichever presidential candidate wins will do so narrowly. He will find Congress quite likely divided: Democrats controlling the Senate, Republicans running the House. Some variation of the rancour and paralysis we have intermittently witnessed during the past four years will likely reoccur.

The division-of-powers system, by definition, is hard to operate. It was designed that way: to make decisions difficult so power would not be concentrated. To work most effectively, the system requires either one party running the White House and the Congress, or a greasing of the wheels by some degree of co-operation by people in both parties.

That co-operation vanished during the past four years. Republicans, their candidate defeated in the presidential election, decided to obstruct and fight all of President Barack Obama's major initiatives. Even those Republicans who might have been inclined to compromise were cowed by radicalized new Republican congressmen and senators whose ideological fervour became the party's defining characteristic, egged on by an increasingly clangorous conservative commentariat.

The radicalization of the Republican Party has been going on since the Goldwater insurgency of the 1960s. It accelerated in strength in recent years, aided by vast sums of private money, disappointment at the lack of financial rigour by the Republicans' very own George W. Bush administrations, anxiety about the slow decline of the country's dominance in the world, anger and bewilderment at the country's and world's diversity and complexity, fury at what is seen as an overreaching, bloated government.

The Pew Research Center, one of the country's most reliable institutions assessing public opinion and issues, now finds that 56 per cent of Americans prefer smaller government providing fewer services, up from 46 per cent four years ago. This shift has occurred despite the federal government's efforts to rescue the economy, tame the excesses of Wall Street, help people cope with natural disasters and spread health-care coverage to the 15 per cent of the population who were without it.

These would all be hailed by liberal-minded people as advances for U.S. society, but for the radicalized right each is an anathema. Indeed, Pew has found Democrats and Republicans now hugely divided over the values and roles of government. The gap around the "social safety net" is 41 per cent, and around "government scope" is 33 per cent.

Republicans now reject many programs about which there was consensus several decades ago, when debates were around the implementation, administration and financing of public programs, not about their very existence. What this shift illustrates, in part, is the desire to recapture public goods – health care, income support, Social Security, university tuition grants and a host of other state supports – by private interests or individuals, which means the impoverishment of the public at the expense of the private, a return, according to those who desire it, to the founding principles of the Republic.

The radicalization of Republicans, and the shattering of the possibilities of consensus, has meant the election (and indeed much of U.S. political discourse) is about shouting to each party's base. This shouting also reflects demography: In many parts of the country, census districts and congressional seats are becoming more monochromatic, so that like people live among like, an old phenomenon it was hoped some years ago was actually breaking down in the United States.

Locked in cyberspheric cocoons, attached to media augmenting the shouting, convinced of the verities of ideology, supporters of each side have encamped themselves in their own political space. The result is that compromise is now actually being campaigned against by some Republican candidates, and will be in short supply among Democrats if their party loses the White House.

They will remember how intransigent Republicans were in their hour of defeat four years ago and be tempted, likewise, to give no quarter in defeat.