We spend a lot of time these days worrying—rightly!—about the political dysfunctions characteristic to our age of extreme polarization. But these worries shouldn’t be reduced, as they so often are, to the platitudinal (and incorrect) worry that we could overcome our problems with a little goodwill and a revival of the lost art of compromise. For as Sam Rosenfeld notes in an informative Boston Review piece, critics in that midcentury era of comity we now invoke with nostalgia actually argued that “the central problem in [midcentury] U.S. politics was excessive bipartisanship—and they prescribed polarization as its solution.”
The transformation of American political parties into more homogeneously ideological units was, in many cases, motivated by perfectly noble goals, and resulted from obvious moral and civic imperatives (most notably, the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights). For critics of the patchwork, heterogeneous parties of an earlier era, the clearer definition of ideologies would “ensure that the two parties’ respective programs were at once coherent and mutually distinct,” and would create enough internal discipline for the parties to carry out ambitious programs once in power. But as Rosenfeld observes, our experience today reveals the unintended consequences of these efforts. For one thing, the establishment of parties capable of carrying out their far-reaching agendas obviously makes elections a more nerve-wracking affair. “Voters now regularly face high-stakes choices over fundamentally different public-policy directions, and their views of the parties have sharpened accordingly,” Rosenfeld writes. It is only the unanticipated regularity of divided government in recent decades that has frustrated the achievement of many of these ambitious programs, producing our widely decried combination of polarization and gridlock. But there’s a catch, as Rosenfeld notes. The reforms that would ease gridlock (such as eliminating the filibuster) wouldn’t end polarization: They would instead “allow partisan majorities to more easily implement their agenda when in power, to accommodate polarized partisanship rather than mitigate it.”
It’s not uncommon for this array of problems to inspire calls for a moderate third party. But in addition to the massive structural barriers that reliably block third-party candidates from getting anywhere under the U.S.’s voting system, such a party would suffer from an acute version of the problem that concerned Rosenfeld’s midcentury observers: It would have no clear ideology, not even a centrist one. Many people who are generally thought to be centrists, on the basis of public opinion data, actually hold a grab-bag of extreme right and left views that defy categorization on either side and so are mistakenly understood to lie somewhere between them. In other words, a coalition of so-called “moderates” wouldn’t even be able to serve as a vehicle for the not-too-right, not-too-left worldview of certain pundits’ fantasies.
I mention this as supplementary evidence for Rosenfeld’s bracing conclusion: There’s probably no way out of polarization, at least not in the foreseeable future, and clearheaded thinking about our political situation demands that we face up to that fact. It is a dispiriting reality of American politics that the ideological sorting of the parties turns elections into a choice between competent, if flawed, center-left governance on the one hand and total chaos on the other. But for now, gridlock is saving us from much of the worst of Trump’s agenda, and partisanship on the left is motivating a sustained organizing effort against his profound threats to our political system. That’s no recipe for bipartisan comity, but as Rosenfeld’s history reminds us, some things are worse than disagreement.