Let's say that John Boehner and Barack Obama decide to spend some social time together. So they agree to meet on Friday evening at 2Amys on Macomb Street in DC. They arrive at the restaurant and chat amiably. They settle on ordering pizza. Disagreement erupts at this point, as Obama wants mushrooms but no onions whereas Boehner wants onions but no mushrooms. Hours pass with neither side budging.
Would it be accurate to describe the two parties as polarized? Far apart? From one perspective they are. They are at a clear impasse and they refuse to give an inch. But look at the bigger picture. They've already agreed upon almost a dozen things. They agreed on Friday. Then they agreed that evenings are clearly better than during the day, and that their goal should be to spend some time getting to know each other better, i.e. going to dinner rather than going to a concert, because they want to be able to talk. They agree on a restaurant. They even agree that of all the things available on the menu, they should have pizza. And they agree about every aspect of the pizza except the toppings in question. They are stalemated, but it would be more accurate to describe them as intransigent than as polarized.
One of the strange aspects of our two-party system is that it is possible to argue quite persuasively that the parties are too far apart, yet it is possible to make an equally persuasive argument that they are too similar. Often people find themselves believing both, and making one argument today and the other tomorrow. The answer lies in the fact that in the current political context the parties excel at disagreeing; about what they disagree, however, is often quite narrow. Dining out versus cooking at home is a big disagreement. Bickering over the mushrooms after we've already agreed that we're going out for pizza is not.
As we watch Obama's Attorney General argue that drone strikes in the U.S. are legal and constitutional, or to look at the administration's record on terrorism/security issues in general, it's impossible to shake the feeling that this is basically a continuation of the Bush administration with cosmetic changes. We conclude that the parties are too similar. Yet we can also produce dozens of examples of ways in which the two are radically different, even without changing the issue dimension to something other than national security. Yet here we are with a government that has already agreed that we should put missiles on robot planes and give the president authority to kill people, including U.S. citizens, with them…haggling about where he can do it. I can see the argument that within the U.S. versus outside the U.S. is a significant distinction, legally. But look at how far down the rabbit hole we already are, and how many things have already been decided.
This is the real drawback of our political system and process. With only two parties and the end of the political-ideological conflict between socialism and capitalist democracy that defined most of the 20th Century we're left debating most – albeit not all – issues within a very narrow ideological range. We've all agreed upon the End of History and that free market capitalism is the final form of human social organization, and that America shall be a hegemonic military power, and that our politicians shall be beholden to the financial interests that back them, and that we will argue only in the margins (except on "social" issues, where legitimate disagreement is permitted because the titans of industry don't give a shit about them). So we have already settled on policing the world and are now arguing about how best to do it, just as we have decided that the financial industry will shape our society to its liking and we are now arguing about whether a handful of regulators should be tasked with watching them do it.
Oh, and if the pizza analogy at the beginning were real Congress would solve it by rejecting both mushrooms and onions in favor of green peppers, so nobody would be happy. Except David Brooks.