A few months ago, the weblog The Monkey Cage commissioned and published a series of short essays on polarization, kicked off by an overview written by Nolan McCarty, which summarized the findings of an APSA study group (on which I and several others present at the May 2014 conference at American University that formed the basis for this book served). I think Nolan fairly reflected majority views of polarization within the scholarly community. What followed in the ensuing days and weeks was a rich offering of the research perspectives of colleagues, many by participants in this conference. Lots of interesting work on polarization is being done, and our knowledge is increasing. Much of that work is discussed in this volume.
PROFESSIONAL DISCOMFORT WITH POLARIZATION
What I would like to address, however, is what I see as our professional discomfort with and reluctance to take seriously the widespread public views that our political system is dangerously broken. I understand and sympathize with that defensive posture, one I've embraced most of my professional life. I've spent decades in Washington explaining and defending the American constitutional system in the face of what I considered to be uninformed and ill-considered attacks on Congress and our way of governing.
After all, the problems our country confronts are immensely difficult, other democracies struggle as we do trying to deal with them, we've overcome similar periods of subpar performance and political dysfunction throughout our history, and our political system has adapted to new circumstances and self-corrected.
But theree's something else going on here: How would we justify ourselves if we didne't contest the conventional wisdom of mere pundits and journalists? We have a positive political science to conduct and are properly critical of half-baked diagnoses and ungrounded normative speculations on how to cure our governing maladies.
But I believe these times are strikingly different from what we have seen in the past, and the health and well-being of our democracy is properly a matter of great concern. We owe it to ourselves and our country to reconsider our priors and at least entertain the possibility that these concerns are justified, even if for us uncomfortably so.