Across the Great Divide – The United States Congress today.

In a chapter 6, entitled The Sources of Polarization, of his book Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong With the U.S. Congress” , (part of which is reprinted in Salon) Tom_Allen, a former Democratic congressman from Maine and current president and CEO of the American Association of Publishers, describes a dozen years in Congress left him “alarmed and frustrated by the inability of Republicans and Democrats to comprehend each other well enough to work together on our country’s major challenges.”  He makes a case that what’s really wrong with Congress is that Republicans and Democrats now hold worldviews that leave the two parties unable to understand how the other thinks about what people should do on their own and what should be done collectively.

 Whatever the socio-economic factors that feed our discontent, our system of government was designed by James Madison and the founders to foster sustained deliberation by representatives of the people who would be committed to acting in the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Too often, the Congress in which I served responded to the short-term interests of particular industries and groups. The Senate, once recognized as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” hardly warrants that title today.

That’s not how things are viewed nowadays.

Democrats see Republicans as inattentive to evidence and expertise, unconcerned about Americans struggling to get by and reflexively opposed to government action to deal with our collective challenges. On the other hand, Republicans see Democrats as the party of a government that routinely infringes on personal freedom, as creators of a “culture of dependency” among people who should stand on their own and as promoters of change from traditional values that will leave us weaker than before.

These different perspectives drive congressional debates far more than the immediate subject before the House on any given day. Above all, the abiding clash between the view of government as a vehicle for the common good and the view of government as an obstacle to progress and personal freedom sits close to the center of our ideological gridlock. That’s why I believe that Congress is best characterized as a forum for interest-group politics overlaid by worldview politics, and it’s the latter struggle that contributes more to the dysfunctional nature of the institution.

His explanation of how these deeply rooted sources of political polarization came into being, and are being nurtured, is both illuminating and dispiriting. It’s dispiriting because, given that he that “people are increasingly sorting themselves into the party that fits their worldview and less to the party that seeks to protect their economic interests”, he must know that any project designed escape the grip of the forces that bringing this about is almost certainly doomed.