WASHINGTON -- As his campaign threw out unsubstantiated charges that Mitt Romney might be guilty of a felony, and then mocked Romney's off-key singing of "America the Beautiful," President Obama took a moment to reflect on the sad state of America's political tone. "Washington feels as broken as it did four years ago," he explained. "And if you ask me what is the one thing that has frustrated me most over the last four years, it's not the hard work. It's not the enormity of the decisions. It's not the pace. It is that I haven't been able to change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people."
The problem is real enough. Extreme political polarization is the product of democracy that undermines democracy. It increases incivility and magnifies distrust of government. It causes some to abandon civic engagement in disgust, and others to join angry ideological insurrections. In Congress, it adds to the obstructive power of cohesive partisan blocs and makes bargaining and compromise in the public interest more difficult.
Do politicians cause this polarization or merely reflect it? There are plenty of contributing factors they don't control. The public itself has become more partisan over the last few decades. Both parties have become more ideologically homogeneous (though Democrats still have more internal diversity). The growth of partisan media has fed polarization.
But leaders can oppose this trend or contribute to it. Things get worse when Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., claims there are "about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party." Or when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz says that Republicans "want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws." Politicians can legitimize incivility, contempt and conspiracy theories. One academic calls such leaders "polarization entrepreneurs." They increase their status and influence by feeding partisan division.
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 is just what American politics most needs -- more juvenile viciousness."
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