American Wonderland: From global warming to the Tea Party, our political landscape is patently absurd
Most people, most of the time, lead lives removed from political and ideological engagement. Family, work, health, sports, and entertainment define what is generally held to be a normal life.
It is also in our national DNA to believe that we are entitled—indeed, obligated—to have a loud voice in the conduct of our government. Isn’t that what our Founding Fathers, and our American ethos, require? Yet we vote at a measurably lower rate than the citizens of most other democracies (although, as their lives improve, they tend to emulate us in this regard). Nor do we generally define ourselves, like most of our counterparts elsewhere, as belonging to the political Left or Right. Indeed, even our traditional Democratic-Republican identities are eroding. A growing plurality of Americans finds comfort in the Independent/non-partisan label.
In sum, we have convinced ourselves that in theory we are engaged citizens, while in fact most of us are the self-family-sports-media-obsessed folk that polling tells us we are. But not all of us, all the time. A substantial number of Americans claim some identity with regard to public life. A fifth of us are ready to say we are liberals; close to twice as many identify themselves as conservatives.
There is as well a political class that has career self-interests, or a cultural (or psychological) inclination to be steadily engaged in public affairs. Many are drawn by self-interest and by the sheer excitement of the political game. Others enjoy the ample outlet for commitment to causes that politics, as compared to much of the rest of contemporary society, provides.
The bulk of the political class operates much of the time within the confines of what most Americans would regard as the everyday world. True, partisan discord can grow heated. Yet vigorous interparty thumping is as old as our country, and traditionally has been regarded as a sign of the well-being of our democracy. But the belief that ours is an age of unprecedented polarization is widespread. The usual trope is to see it as a distinguishing feature of the opposition: The terrorist Tea Partyers! The socialist Obamaites!
Are we in fact living in an age of untypical ill-feeling? Compared to more placid times like the 1820s, the 1920s, and the 1950s, perhaps. Compared to notably non-placid times like the 1790s, the 1850s, or the 1960s, no.