The word "polarization" in the political sense — the inability or refusal of political parties to work together — is always and everywhere a bad thing. At least that's the view of journalists who cover Capitol Hill. Last year, when a couple of wonks discovered that the 112th Congress (2011-2012) had been the "most polarized Congress ever," meaning that floor votes contained less party overlap than during any previous Congress, a number of Washington reporters and commentators covered the revelation as if it were evidence of an impending national collapse.
Political polarization means Americans are divided, and division is bad. Their politicians are divided, too, and this division makes them disinclined to "work together" and "get things done."
For 20 years at least (I'm now 41), I've heard Washington journalists and politicians lament the fact that partisan adversaries in Congress don't get along the way they used to. In the good ol' days, it's said, Congressmen might have sparred on the floor and tried to undermine each other's positions, but after hours they'd have drinks together. Now, alas, that doesn't happen. Oh, the sadness of it all.
But is polarization — the older, less fancy term for it was partisanship — really a bad thing?
Occasionally one talks to someone who says, usually with an air of self-congratulation, "I don't care about the party. I care about the issue" — as if other people care only about the words "Republican" or "Democrat" rather than about what those words signify. The truth of the matter is partisan affiliations are only convenient ways of subdividing outlooks. "Party," Benjamin Disraeli said somewhere, "is organized opinion." Those "R"s and "D"s after a politician's name are like the jerseys worn by opposing teams on a football field; they're helpful in figuring out who's doing what, but not intrinsically meaningful.
An intense level of partisanship, then, the kind of partisanship that apparently dominates Congress today, doesn't mean that members have become preoccupied with the superiority of their own clans — like Jets and Sharks, but with staffers and campaign accounts. What it means is that members have widely divergent views on policies, and that they're tired of pretending otherwise.
Partisanship may be ugly at times, but it is engaging and educational in a way that bipartisanship isn't. When partisan hatred is at its bitterest, even the most apathetic and ill-informed observers stand a chance of understanding what the real questions are. If one side believes it's a worthwhile enterprise to add a few $100 billion to a multi-trillion debt in order to boost economic growth, and the other side believes that pursuing that policy not only won't achieve its aim but will hasten the end of the republic, I see no reason why the relevant officeholders should compromise. To compromise is to mislead the public into believing there is a third option. There isn't.
We'd all like our politicians to come together and find "common ground" and "workable solutions" and so on. But splitting the difference is usually a terrible idea. If you're at a four-way stop sign and the driver's side passenger insists the correct way to go is right and you think it's left, going straight is not a reasonable solution.
The trouble comes when bipartisan cheeriness prevails and party labels become meaningless. Consider the S.C. Statehouse. There is remarkably little rancor there, and the only reason Republicans dominate is because lots of Democrats became Republicans a quarter century ago. Most of the big issues have long been settled: K-12 education and income taxes shouldn't be tampered with in any significant way; public universities should get more or less of what they ask for, regardless of what they're doing with the money or how high tuition climbs; state government should "manage" the economy through a dizzying array of "economic development" agencies and programs; and the more corporate welfare we can give to companies with the best lobbyists, the better.
State budgets frequently pass one or both chambers unanimously or near-unanimously, and with rare exceptions members of either party can engage in flagrant conflicts of interest with no objection from the other side. The GOP Speaker of the House, Bobby Harrell, to take the most obvious example of what I mean, is currently the subject of a grand jury investigation for a variety of alleged ethical offenses. House Democrats haven't said a word about it. Indeed, the House minority leader, Todd Rutherford (D-Richland), who's happy to make outrageous claims when no serious policy issues are at stake, has uttered hardly a word about the Harrell case.
I'm for a bit of partisanship in Columbia, but to have real partisanship our lawmakers would have to find things to disagree about, and to do that they'd have to find things to believe in.