The Sovereign Mind

Free thought on politics and real life

Is Our Government Broken, or Are We?

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It seems the question of the moment is: is our government broken? Some have concluded that our elected officials in Washington have become so polarized and partisan that they can’t get anything done for the American people. Those on the left lament the fact that they can’t get their initiatives passed, despite having a majority of both houses of Congress and the President on their side. Those on the right complain that their government doesn’t seem to be interested in listening to what they have to say.

So, is it true? Is our government broken?

It is true that our representatives have been growing more polarized for some time now. This impressive chart, based on the data from these people, shows how the parties have become more polarized since the middle of the last century, and especially since 1980. While I don’t have the academic credentials to verify the correctness of their data or methodology, I trust that they are generally correct because their data is cited in a number of other academic articles I’ve run across, their conclusion coincides with the the popular consensus, and the only excuse for creating such a hideous website is if you are such a genius that spending any effort on website design is beneath you. Therefore, they must be right.

So, we can conclude that our government is becoming more polarized, and therefore more partisan. (It’s worth noting that polarization and partisanship are not necessarily the same thing, but surely they are highly correlated–if both parties had identical ideologies, of course they would not spend much effort opposing each other.)

But why has Washington become more polarized? Is it because, as many have assumed, it has lost touch with a mainly-centrist America due to district gerrymandering and voter apathy? Or is it that we, the American people, have become more polarized, and Washington is merely reflecting that shift? If it is that Washington has lost touch with mainstream America, then all we’d have to do to show that is ask mainstream America. We ought to be able to find a significant number of people who say that both parties have become too extreme. However, according to a Gallup poll from last year, that’s not what Americans are saying.

According to the poll, 50% of Americans say that the Democratic party’s views are “about right” or “too conservative”. Also, 51% of Americans think that the Republican party is “about right” or “too liberal”. In other words, 101% of Americans have views that align with one of the parties, or else they are actually more extreme than the party they are closest to. That leaves -1% of the population that have views in the middle of the two parties and feel that both parties are too extreme. Okay, Okay, math majors. Obviously there’s something wrong with those numbers: In addition to rounding error, there probably are some that say that both parties are “about right” (did they misunderstand the question?), and so those people would be counted twice in my numbers. But, even if there are some of those people, the number of people who said both parties are too extreme would have had to be even lower, so the point is still made: very few people think that both parties are too extreme. The vast majority agree with one party or the other, or are more extreme that either party.

So, it seems that Washington isn’t broken–it’s just a reflection of the people. So are we broken?

During elections, especially the general elections, we often hear politicians calling for us to come together by reminding us that “we are all Americans”. The implication is that despite our political differences, we share a lot in common. But, if we are truly becoming more polarized, as the poll suggests, then that common ground is shrinking. If the trend continues, we will have a divided nation, if we can still call it one nation at all. How can we expect one body to govern a nation that has such differing views on the direction we should take? On the other hand, will the pendulum start to swing the other way? For the sake of the country, I hope so, but honestly I don’t see any hint of hesitation on the path of continued polarization, leaving the -1% of us in the middle fearing for the future of our country.

So, what’s broken? Is it our government, or us?

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Written by Mike

February 24, 2010 at 9:25 pm

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