The U.S.'s Recurring Bouts of Incurable Political Polarization

Here we go again: A U.S. political system marked by partisanship and polarization engenders despair from both Republicans and Democrats.

Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the few congressional Republicans who work comfortably with members of the other party, decided to retire last year. She lamented that "the sensible center has disappeared from American politics."

Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who heads the Senate Budget Committee, said he realized that it was “time for me to leave” when a senior colleague told him: “Your problem, Conrad, is you’re too solutions-oriented. You’ve never understood this is political theater.’”

This is a periodic refrain. A generation ago, it was even more pronounced and pessimistic.

Jimmy Carter was president. With his legislative agenda stalled, he faced a challenge within his own party and a relentlessly hostile Republican Party, a sluggish economy and runaway inflation. In the summer of 1979 the president gave an address on America's "crisis of confidence." It often is labeled the "malaise" speech, though Carter never used that word.

Four months later, Iranian radicals stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and seized 52 Americans, who were held hostage for more than a year.

This exacerbated the despair, as it came on the heels of the American defeat in Vietnam. "The last time we got involved with a two-bit country, we lost 50,000 men," lamented one of Washington's wise men, the late Harry McPherson, who had been counsel to President Lyndon Johnson. "Now we were involved with another one, and there was nothing we could do about it."

Another wise man, Lloyd Cutler, then counsel to President Carter, wrote an article for "Foreign Affairs" suggesting that our political machinery was broken and that the U.S. should consider changing to a parliamentary system.

Ronald Reagan was elected, proved a forceful president and talk of altering the system diminished.

(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News and a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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