One hundred years ago, the European powers were hurtling down a path leading to World War I. Trench warfare became the dominant image of that war, as both sides dug in and the battle lines barely moved. Many called it the "War to End All Wars," but in the end it merely set the stage for World War II.
Election 2012 is shaping up to be the political equivalent of trench warfare that fails to resolve anything.
The early polling data suggests the race could be very close. The past two months of daily tracking by Rasmussen Reports shows, on average, that the candidates are just a point apart. The behavior of the two sides reinforces the perception of a close race and a nasty, negative campaign.
Recent history adds to the sense of a nation that is divided politically and unable to move forward. Over the past six presidential elections, no candidate has won more than 53 percent of the vote. Barring a major change in the economy or in the international arena, the results in 2012 are likely to make it seven in a row. This election simply reflects the hardening of partisan lines that have been developing for three decades.
Such numbers stand in stark contrast to the period that preceded it. For more than 80 years, most presidential elections were won with more than 53 percent of the vote. Bigger victory margins lead to a healthier political system. They add a sense of legitimacy (and sometimes a mandate) for the victors. They also help the losers recognize that the results weren't a fluke determined by some tactical mistake. Instead, the defeated party must listen carefully to public opinion and try a different approach to connecting with the voters.
Since the Republicans started competing with the Democrats, there has been only one other comparable stretch with seven consecutive competitive elections. That was from 1876 to 1900, a period when the nation was dealing with both the aftermath of the Civil War and the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society.
Today, the nation is dealing with the aftermath of the culture wars from the 1960s and the transition from an industrial society to an information-based one. America has changed dramatically over the last generation or two, but U.S. politicians keep refighting the same old partisan battles.
As consumers, Americans experience a private sector that is catering more and more to individual preferences. Everybody can buy an iPad, but every person customizes it in a different way.
As voters, however, Americans experience a government that is unresponsive and catering to the interests and whims of politicians. Only 8 percent believe members of Congress listen to their constituents more than political party leaders. Only 17 percent believe the government today has the consent of the governed.
Somebody will win this November, and their supporters will claim the victory resolved the divisions in American politics in their favor. Diplomats once thought the Armistice to end World War I resolved the divisions in Europe. But the underlying reality is that the American people are ready to move into a new era, and the political class remains committed to defending the status quo.
Nothing will be resolved until the political class catches up to the American people. That will require a major change in the way government and politics work.