Some may complain that this analysis falls into the trap of moral equivalency, failing to note that Republicans practice the politics of extremism and suppression of the moderate vote and that Democrats offer more moderation and compromise. But while it is true that the move away from the political center has been asymmetric and probably began with the Republicans, the success of that strategy has now forced everyone to play the same game.
These days, congressional Democrats and Obama campaign strategists make no secret of their belief that previous attempts at moderation and compromise have not been to their benefit and that they have no choice but to energize their base with a tougher, more left-leaning campaign.
And to those who now expect Romney to move to the center as he shifts from primary- to general-election mode, I’d point out that didn’t happen with either John Kerry or Bush in 2004, or Obama or McCain in 2008. The problem with Sarah Palin wasn’t that she was too ideologically extreme — that part of her selection as McCain’s running mate is still considered a base-energizing, game-changing masterstroke. The problem was that her hard-edged ideology was not matched by a hard-core understanding of the issues.
We know the solutions to escalating polarization: A disarmament treaty for the campaign finance arms race involving spending caps and contribution limits. A ban on campaign spending by independent groups. A requirement that all broadcasters and cable networks provide free advertising time to all candidates. A requirement that everyone vote or face a fine. Transferring redistricting powers from party leaders to unelected, nonpartisan experts. And that hardy perennial, a third-party movement.
Simply to list these ideas, however, is to acknowledge how unlikely it is that the system can correct itself.
Arms races, free riding, tragedies of the commons — these failures in economic markets are well understood. The solutions usually involve some form of government action or regulation. But when similar failures occur in political markets, there are no institutions capable of stepping in and forcing the necessary collaboration or collective action.
Government can’t be the solution when it is the problem.
Steven Pearlstein is a Washington Post business and economics columnist and Robinson professor at George Mason University. This essay is adapted from the Harold Gortner Lecture he delivered at the university on April 16.
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