The polarization of politics is one of the definitive characteristics of 21st century America. Back in January, Gallup survey data found that 65 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with the country’s system — the highest percentage on record since the research firm first began tracking the “Mood of the Nation” in 2001. Even in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the rate of dissatisfaction was lower, with just one in four individuals expressing disapproval with the effectiveness of government. Now, the government’s perceived inefficiency outstripped the economy, health care, low job creation, national defense, and the federal budget as the greatest problem with the United States. While Gallup particularly highlighted the size and power of the federal government as the greatest concern of respondents, equally important to the nation’s dissatisfaction is how partisan politics have become in recent years. Partisan gridlock has “tarnished the government’s image among both” Republicans and Democrats, noted that Gallup report.
It is fair to say that the numerous problems plaguing the country — slow economic growth, lagging job creation, the faltering health care reform — all shape how Americans view the government. But there is an important distinction to make. The nation does not feel that its leaders have been hit with insurmountable obstacles that they are trying to solve, but instead Congress and the president appear to have become sidetracked by partisan battles that have taken on more importance than the myriad of issues at hand. American politicians are finding it necessary to subscribe to an “us versus them” mentality. The results of this type of thinking were on full display last October when the federal government shut down for 16 days because of Congress’ inability to agree on spending. Ideally, a divided government benefits from the counterbalances the political parties provide; one party will restrain the other’s impulse to ideologically overreach. But if neither party will negotiate, the results are ineffective governance.