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Political Polarization Creates Paralysis in Washington

The U.S. government faces political paralysis under the dramatic increase in partisan polarization and division over the last 20 years, said Clive Crook, U.S. political affairs columnist for The Financial Times and National Journal. “I was struck by the weakness of party discipline in the United States in 1985 and 1986,” Crook said during a Myron Scholes Global Markets Forum presented by the Initiative on Global Markets at Gleacher Center December 11. “Today the political atmosphere is as poisoned or confrontational as Britain from 1945-79, if not more so.”

Such polarization raises two major concerns, he said. First, because of the extreme views of the Labor and Conservative parties, British democracy suffered wide swings in policy with each election, said Crook, deputy editor of The Economist from 1993-2005. “It was a period of chronic economic and political instability and decades of relative economic decline,” he said. “It took a combination of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to entrench a more centrist and remarkably more consistent mode of government.”

The United States appears to be moving in the other direction, Crook said. “The new Democrats repudiate Bill Clinton’s centrism and are trying to hold their candidates’ feet to the fire,” he said. “I’m ashamed of some of the editorials I wrote for The Economist attacking Clinton when he was president. He was a much better president than I thought at the time, a better president than George Bush, and a much better president than any candidate - except Barack Obama - the Democrats are putting up for election this time.”

The second concern is that in contrast with post-war Britain, the partisan view in Washington DC today is not synthetic, Crook said. “It’s not a show; it’s real,” he said. “Many of these people actually despise each other. There’s very little spirit of good will or presumption of good faith.”

Also in contrast with Britain, the separation of powers and the appointment of new cabinet members with each presidential election in the United States prevent unchecked power for either party but, paradoxically, provide no restraint on rhetoric, Crook said. “It matters if the rhetoric is poisonous, because it ruins public discourse,” he said. “The biggest thing missing in the current Washington atmosphere is the ability to have an intelligent, moderate discussion about anything in good faith with people who disagree with you.”

In most circumstances the American separation of powers requires bipartisanship to get anything accomplished, Crook said. As a result the United States faces political paralysis on major issues such as immigration, social security and Medicare, environmental policy, and fiscal discipline, he said. “Each of these issues responds best to a compromise that requires each side to give something up,” Crook said. “That is the way the Clinton administration dealt with the budget deficit in the 1990s.”

Crook, a self-described centrist who “leans right,” declined to say which presidential candidate would be best for the U.S. economy, but he said based on campaign platforms, Obama, a former University of Chicago Law School teacher, would make the best president. “He is capable of transforming American politics in a way that I think the other candidates of both parties have no ambition to try to do,” he said. “I don’t agree with all of his policies, but he is a good thing and I would honor his ambition.”

- Phil Rockrohr