The politics of extremism

Polarization is making the American Dream impossible to realize

was there ever a generation luckier than mine? Born in 1942, I have no memories of the horrors of World War II. But I have clear recollections of the way my parents, neither of whom had ever gone to college, lived the American Dream in the years after the war came to an end. My 1950s and 1960s consisted of moving from a small row house to a larger ranch version, attending college and graduate school to compensate for the degrees my parents lacked, and protesting against the inequities of American society—in short, all of those things that make one believe that, in America, every year will be better than the one that preceded it.

Two prominent features of the American political system characterized those years. One was the often lamented but in fact quite productive lack of severe ideological conflict between the two parties. To be sure, the 1950s featured McCarthy­ism on the right and the 1960s had more than its share of left-wing anger that erupted into violence. But the leader of the Republican Party, Dwight D. Eisenhower, successfully cooled out the former and his successor, John F. Kennedy, was, much like our current president, a cautious centrist at heart. These were years when politicians, no matter how partisan, also possessed a sense of responsibility for the country they governed. There really did exist something called an Establishment, and its job, as those who composed it understood, was to do those things they believed to be in the national interest. They could be spectacularly wrong, as they were in Vietnam. But say this for the best and the brightest, as they were sarcastically labeled: They possessed enough status and self-confidence to rise above partisan and financial self-interest to envision huge undertakings that had the potential to improve the lives of all.

Lacking deep divisions, the American political system of those years responded with its second determining feature: legislation that changed the face of American life. Without the support of prominent Republicans, the 1964 Civil Rights Act —the single most important embodiment of the American Dream in my lifetime—never would have passed. A decade later, Richard Nixon, in the ab­sence of Democratic help, would never have been able to sponsor the creation of the Environ­mental Protec­tion Agency, a landmark effort to preserve so much of what had made America great. The fuel for the realization of the American Dream turned out to be government. Without it, and without the jobs it provided and the growth it generated, the highways that made suburbia possible would never have been built, the factories and farms that produced ever-cheaper goods would have been stagnant, and not a single American could have taken pride in landing a man on the moon.

It did not take rocket science, however, to understand that the realization of ambitious dreams could not be done without money and that taxation is the way government gets the money it spends. Americans did not like paying taxes then, as they do not now. But they paid them nonetheless.

Our time is almost the exact reverse of that time —and this, more than any other reason, is why I fear the American Dream is becoming a thing of the past. Anyone who likes the idea that politics should be about the clash of radically different world views will be an admirer of the way our political life is conducted today. But anyone who seeks from politics a common vision for the country—and a realistic path for realizing that sense of purpose—will be deeply disappointed. As far as politics is concerned, there is no longer an American Dream because we no longer dream and because we cannot agree on what it means to be an American.

In 1998, I published a book with the optimistic title One Nation, After All. Yes, we were a divided country, I argued. But after talking with middle-class suburbanites around the country, I concluded that our divisions were deepest among politicians and political activists; most Americans remained in the middle, leaning to the left on some issues and to the right on others. Much of this picture, I believe, is still true. But if the activists were sharply divided then, the gap between them now is simply un­bridgeable. A country that cannot agree on a budget will never agree on a purpose. It has proved to be a huge struggle just to pass a law, any law, or to appoint a judge, any judge, which means that defining an agenda for the society, as the New Deal and Great Society did, is a thing of the past. Even if the United States had a political system capable of responding to majority will, which it does not, it lacks majorities on any of the significant issues of the day.

Politics, in addition, has become a form of blood sport, an attempt to deny the other side a victory at all costs. When politics is a form of war by other means, the other party is not composed of your fellow citizens, however strongly you may disagree with them, but with enemies, traitors, committers of treason. Harsh rhetoric is one thing. Charges of un-Americanism are another. Whether you agree with his policies or not, we are fortunate enough to have a president whose life story is testimony to the American  Dream. Not only that, he has articulated its meaning in the best of his speeches. “Yes, we are rugged individualists,” he said in his Septem­ber speech urging the creation of new jobs. “Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and the envy of the world.” But, in line with those leaders from an earlier time, Obama also pointed out that the American Dream cannot be achieved in isolation: “Ask yourselves—where would we be right now if the people who sat here before us decided not to build our highways, not to build our bridges, our dams, our airports? What would this country be like if we had chosen not to spend money on public high schools, or research universities, or community colleges? Millions of returning heroes, including my grandfather, had the opportunity to go to school because of the G.I. Bill. Where would we be if they hadn’t had that chance?”

Although Obama has both lived and expressed the American Dream, a shameful number of Americans are evidently unwilling to conclude that he is even American. Our public life is dominated, not by the question of what Americans can do together, but of who are the real Americans—and by implication who are those who do not really belong here. We have one candidate running for president (Michele Bachmann) who called President Obama and liberals anti-American and another (Rick Perry) who proposed that his state secede from the union. Those are the acts of small people lacking any sense that the country in which they live is and should be composed of large numbers of people unlike themselves.

Both the politicians I have just mentioned are leaders of the Republican Party. I have no idea whether the leaders of that party, who are so militantly opposed to taxes and who believe that government is evil except when it tells people what to do with their sex lives, are sincere in their convictions or simply ignorant of economics and history. But I do know that the politics of extremism and polarization they have brought to our public life is making the American Dream impossible to realize.

Although the conventions of centrism require blaming both parties, the truth is that the Republican base is far more extremist than anything that can be found among the Democrats. It goes without saying that both parties claim to be representing the American  Dream. But for one it has become a tool to avoid any sense of common obligation and for the other it has become too ambitious a goal to pursue in a time of retrenchment.

Meet the Author
What are ordinary Americans to make of the spectacle their leaders have brought about? If you are today what my parents were nearly 70 years ago—a young family hoping for the best for your children—you had better already have what you will need because government will not be there to help you on your path upwards. You may make it nonetheless, and if you do, you will deserve the good fortune that comes your way. But it will be your dreams that will be realized, not the American Dream. The latter belongs to all of us or it belongs to none of us. It is symbol of who we are as a people not what we become as individuals.

My parents are no longer alive to see what has happened to the country in which they realized their  dreams. But I have children of my own, all of them at the start of their careers. I hope they will be as lucky in their future as I was in my past. That opportunity still exists for them, but only if their fellow Americans recall, as the president did in his September speech, that our greatest efforts are those in which we engage collectively.

Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His latest book, Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It, was published in September by Knopf.