It’s an interesting approach, and it’s also an apt description of what’s at stake. However this contest for the governorship turns out, no one expects either candidate to win by an enormous margin. The result will be somewhere close to 50-50. Walker has been ahead in the polls, but there are signs that the race is narrowing. Walker’s empty charges that there might be voter “fraud” today suggested he might be more worried about losing than the public GOP talking points suggest.

The real question, raised by Barrett, is whether we are condemned to a permanent 50-50 kind of politics in which neither side ever has a chance of assembling a program that can command wider support. Is such consensual politics a thing of the past?

I’m in the camp of those who thinks that Walker, reflecting the current right-wing tilt of contemporary conservatism, really has put a winner-take-all approach above the quest for consensus. His move against collective bargaining, along with the enactment of laws designed to make it harder for poorer and younger Wisconsin residents to vote, was destined to provoke outrage. He was trying to rig the laws to weaken his political opposition.

This is very different from streamlining government. Many governors have made cuts without provoking such rage. And, in fact, all the deep cuts in state and local governments across the country have made our economic problems worse. Austerity at a time when we are struggling to undo the impact of a deep recession is a bad idea.

We are going through a difficult period as a nation. If we are to get through it whole, we need policies that create a broader consensus based on shared values and shared prosperity. In Wisconsin, Walker has absolutely no chance of ending the non-violent civil war that has taken over the state’s politics. If Barrett pulls off an upset, it will be because of a massive grass-roots mobilization and because his promise to end civil war turned the final votes he needed his way.

More from E.J. Dionne:

Can this presidential campaign be constructive?

Conservatives used to care about community

Book review: ‘Our Divided Political Heart’