But it also could be a new normal, as confrontation remains commonplace and true compromise rare. Meanwhile, the ideological, cultural and political differences that led to this moment of extreme governmental dysfunction are almost certain to shape elections and legislative battles in the near term.
That is the conclusion of politicians, political strategists and scholars who have been living with a deepening red-blue divide in America that they
say has made this era of politics the most polarized in more than a century. However bad it may have seemed in the 1990s, the
last time there was a shutdown
, or after the contested presidential election in 2000, or a decade ago during a divisive war, the fundamentals are worse today.
Some may rightly blame politicians in Washington for behaving badly, but in reality the clashes in the nation’s capital reflect conflicting attitudes and values held by politically active, rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats across the country. Add to that a faction of conservatives in the House who are determined to disrupt business as usual and the current stalemate in Congress becomes almost unavoidable.
The bonds that once helped produce political consensus have gradually eroded, replaced by competing camps that live in parallel universes, have sharply divergent world views and express more distrust of opponents than they did decades ago. Many activists describe the stakes in apocalyptic terms.
Pete Wehner, an official in the White House under President George W. Bush, said there is now a huge premium among the most conservative wing of his party to fight for the sake of fighting. “People feel like we’re losing our country,” he said. “That’s not my view, but it is the view of a lot of people, and it moves them to be pugilistic, to be more combative and more confrontational. They believe there’s a huge amount at stake.”
In the states, the red-blue divisions have for now produced governments largely controlled by one party or the other. In Washington, they have produced a divided government and could continue to do so for some years to come. Nothing in politics is permanent, but Democrats now enjoy some advantage in the electoral college competition, while the alignment of congressional districts gives Republicans the upper hand in controlling the House. Divided government has resulted in a breakdown in governance.
Another major factor in the current stalemate is the degree to which the country has polarized around the Obama presidency. Conservatives see the president as someone who came to office preaching unity and post-partisanship but who has been, as one Republican put it, a hyperpartisan with an agenda deliberately designed to increase the power of the federal government. There is virtually no middle ground when it comes to assessments of President Obama.