The future looks good when I read The Verge. The watches are smarter, the televisions are curvier, and the buckets of ice are icier.
But honestly, the future looks less good from where I sit in Washington.
Let me be the voice of pessimism. Silicon Valley is a place where seemingly impossible problems are solved every day, while Washington is a place where solvable problems prove impossible to do anything about. It’s a daily reminder that the problems where we know exactly what to do are often the hardest — because someone else also knows exactly what to do, and their answer is different, and there’s no natural way to choose between the two.
The American political system is rare
The American political system is rare. In most every other place it’s been tried, the country has collapsed into constitutional crisis. The reason is relatively simple. As the late sociologist Juan Linz wrote in 1989, "no democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people." To put it simply: House Republicans and President Obama both have an equal claim to represent the will of the American people. When they disagree there’s no way to resolve the dispute.
Linz attributed America’s political success to "the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties." America’s political parties, unlike those in almost every other country, were bizarrely diverse. The Democratic Party, for instance, was home to some of the country’s most liberal politicians — and to some of its most conservative. The same was true in the Republican Party. The diversity of the two parties made their disagreements more tractable. A few liberal Republicans were always willing to work with the Democrats, and a few conservative Democrats were always willing to work with the Republicans.
But that’s over. America’s "uniquely diffuse" political parties are, for various reasons, becoming completely ordinary — which is to say, they’re becoming disciplined organizations pursuing clear, ideological objectives. This is happening faster to the Republican Party than to the Democratic Party, but the trend is unmistakable — and, for now, inexorable — on both sides. And it’s breaking American politics. The system is designed to require high levels of compromise. But compromise is increasingly difficult for both sides.
Compromise is increasingly difficult for both sides
There’s much to be optimistic about in the future. But I’m not particularly optimistic about American politics. The polarization has a logic all its own. As the parties pull apart, polarization creeps into American’s personal lives, their media habits, and their political behavior — all of which makes Americans even more polarized. There’s no obvious force on the horizon to interrupt it. And so there’s no obvious solution for American politics.
The good news? Politics isn’t everything.