We don't lack for explanations of why American politics have descended into disgusting displays of animus and deep dysfunction. The Republicans went crazy. The Democrats screeched too far left. Big money has corrupted Washington. Gerrymandering drives politicians to extremes. The centrists in both parties failed to fulfill their promises.
But there's another and far more obvious villain in this story: We the People.
Americans disagree so profoundly about how to respond to the fundamental problems facing the country — and even about what those problems are — that we can no longer manage to reach conciliation, consensus, and compromise on a way forward.
That's exactly the impression one gets from the results of a remarkably comprehensive Economist/YouGov poll conducted from June 17-19 and released last week. Based on online interviews with 1,500 respondents, the poll reveals a country so deeply divided that its citizens effectively live in alternative universes. That's hardly an original insight. But the depth of the disagreements — and the inability of each side to conceive of any way to reach an accommodation with its ideological opponents — is a sign of something new, and the motor behind much that's gone wrong with our politics.
If partisan disagreement has to do with, say, how best to win the Cold War (with both sides sharing the underlying assumption that we should be trying to win it), then we can have a productive political debate about how to achieve the goal we both affirm. The same holds for a debate about Social Security, provided that all sides agree that the goal is to make it solvent. In that case, one side can emphasize raising taxes and the other side raising the retirement age, and then a compromise might be reached.
But what happens when we can't even agree about goals?
We see this dynamic in issue after issue, but let's consider the example of immigration. Should America's goal be more immigration or less immigration? Even more simplistically: Is immigration good or bad?
We simply do not agree.
Asked if past immigration has improved the country, 50 percent of self-identified Republicans say it's made things worse (with only 29 percent saying better) while 51 percent of self-identified Democrats say it's made the country better (with 20 percent answering that it's made things worse). When it comes to the level of legal immigration, 74 percent of Republicans would prefer that it stayed the same or decreased, while 69 percent of Democrats want to see it stay the same or increase. There's an even bigger gap about Trump's proposed border wall, with has an astonishingly high 80 percent support from Republicans and 78 percent opposition from Democrats.
On the more topical question of illegal immigration, the results are, if anything, even more troubling.
Asked what should be done with undocumented immigrants already living in the country, a grand total of 74 percent of Republicans think they should either be allowed to stay but denied a path to citizenship (12 percent) or be deported (62 percent). Seventy five percent of Democrats, by contrast, think the undocumented should be allowed to stay and given a path to citizenship. That partisan gap persists on the question of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, where a whopping 83 percent of Republicans either strongly (61 percent) or somewhat (22 percent) approve of the policy, while 66 percent of Democrats either somewhat (21 percent) or strongly (45 percent) disapprove of it.
We are in a state of complete deadlock on the issue, which is no doubt why Congress has proved utterly incapable of resolving it — and why the Trump administration's hard-right actions have provoked spasms of outrage among Democrats. Both parties consider immigration an issue of great importance (with 88 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats labeling it as such), but the overlap between them in how to address the issue is nil. Each wants to move in a contrary direction, turning any move into an act of partisan provocation.
When following the news, writing checks to or knocking on doors for a party, showing up to vote, and deciding whether to take to the street in protest, each individual needs to make a decision about where to come down on these disagreements. But when we try to understand or grasp the whole of the country and its political dilemmas, it's crucial to adopt a different perspective — one above the political fray. The Economist/YouGov poll helps us to do that. And what it shows us is a country in serious trouble, its institutions buckling from stress caused by an electorate that no longer inhabits a world of common concerns and priorities.
The problem, it seems, is us.