America has the responsibilities of a superpower and the politics of a banana republic

Michael Gerson has a hard-hitting column on “The politics of polarization” over at Washington Post. The focus is on Team Obama, but there are lessons here for both Right and Left.

Whatever his intentions or provocations, Obama is now engaged in partisan polarization on an industrial scale. His campaign’s latest round of Bain charges is not politics as usual. It is the accusation of criminal impropriety — the filing of false government documents — without real evidence, as various fact-checking outfits have attested. Obama’s recent attack ad, “Firms,” reflects the sensibilities of a particularly nasty 13-year-old. It is difficult to imagine most Americans saying: “That’s just what American politics most needs — more juvenile viciousness.”

These are not excesses; they are the essence of Obama’s current political strategy. He is attempting to destroy Romney before Romney can define himself, while using a series of issues — the mini-DREAM Act, voting rights and contraceptive controversies — to excite his base. The approach is not politically irrational. But it is premised on the avoidance of issues such as unemployment and the deficit. And it leaves little room for complaints about the brokenness of Washington.

Will this strategy succeed? So far, it hasn’t seemed to change the fundamental dynamics of the race, a race that remains both very close and remarkably stable. Negative charges usually work when they have the ring of truth, and Romney — though he has his weaknesses as a candidate — does not fit the part of a sleazy businessman or a Nixonian liar.

But these tactics do have an effect on politics. The most partisan Democrats are encouraged and empowered. The most partisan Republicans gain an excuse for the next escalation. This is the nature of polarization: Both sides feel victimized, which becomes a justification to cross past limits and boundaries. Neither side feels responsible for the problem, while both contribute to it.

Gerson concludes with this devastating indictment of the sorry state of American politics in general:

Meanwhile, America is well on its way to a disturbing destination: A nation with the responsibilities of a superpower and the politics of a banana republic.


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