A version of this article was first published in the Harvard Crimson.
Americans love to be able to think of one person as our leader. So it's not surprising that we blow presidential elections entirely out of proportion. Each side whips itself into a panic that if the other guy wins, our country is doomed.
Most Americans don't realize it, but the president's constitutional powers are miniscule compared to Congress's. He needs help to get almost anything substantial accomplished. Just ask President Obama.
Which is why regardless of the result of this election, Washington will remain broken. We have a political system premised on compromise in a country where compromise has become a mortal political sin.
What caused this shift? There are many contributing factors, but none more important than the rise of institutions dedicated to telling people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. From cable news to blogs to think tanks, these organizations work 24/7 to reaffirm people's pre-existing beliefs and discredit any contradictory facts. Consequently, many liberals and conservatives today inhabit totally different worlds.
The result is that American politics has become disturbingly Manichean. Each side thinks the other is not only mistaken, but devious. This is completely understandable, if everything you ever hear indicates that the only way anyone could disagree with you is if they were deliberately ignoring the truth.
Polarization is personal for me because I showed up on Harvard's campus freshman year as a Tea Partier. I was convinced that all the facts confirmed my political beliefs and that anyone who disagreed was ignoring them. I was told as much by my most trusted sources of political information: the Wall Street Journal editorial board, Rush Limbaugh, Thomas Sowell, and Fox News.
It wasn't until I took Harvard's introductory economics course, taught by senior Romney economic adviser Greg Mankiw (isn't life ironic?), and found that supply side economics wasn't supported by historical evidence--as I had always been told--that I began to think much more critically about my worldview. I chose more unbiased sources of information and changed my opinions when the real facts didn't justify them.
I'll be the first to admit that it's exhausting to form political opinions in a world that isn't black and white anymore. It's much easier to remain in a cocoon of self-affirmation. Highly personalized sources of political information make it that much easier. I worry that Americans, both liberals and conservatives, can't resist the temptation.
America's erosion of trust has had catastrophic consequences. You don't make deals with people you don't trust. You defeat them. Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock expressed this mentality with candor, "I have a mindset that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view."
Congress doesn't work with attitudes like that. On every major issue, Congress now produces endless stopgap measures. Structural solutions must wait because, as David Brooks notes, both parties are drunk on the "fantasy that [they] are about to win a 1932-style victory that will render [their] opponents powerless."
The parties have certainly become the divisive factions the founders warned against. But let's look further, to the source of their power. As long as the American electorate selectively chooses its facts, it will be susceptible to the demagoguery that has defined this campaign on both sides. As long as voters continue electing anti-compromise candidates to an institution dependent on compromise, Congress will continue to be dysfunctional, no matter if 83 percent of voters insist to pollsters that they actually want politicians to compromise.
America is big and it is diverse. No one party is going to get its way all the time. We need to learn to live together and balance our interests as we used to. I believe the future of America rests, above all else, on whether we do.
With this in mind, who should win the White House?
The last two years have been defined by Republican obstructionism. House Republicans in particular have refused to support anything that isn't exactly what they want.
If Obama is reelected, I have little doubt that we will see four more years of gridlock. Some offer this as a reason to vote Romney, on the assumptions that Moderate Mitt is the real Mitt and that Republicans will be willing to moderate with him after the election.
Electing Romney would reward Republicans for their intransigence over Obama's term and establish perverse political incentives that would make it even harder for politicians to start compromising again. I'll take short-term gridlock in exchange for the prospect of less long-term dysfunction any day.
Democrats have their zealots too, of course. The difference is that they don't currently control their party.
Exhibit A: in case anyone forgot, in 2011 the Tea Party Caucus forced Republican leaders, against their will, to hold the nation's economic recovery and credit rating hostage and refuse to relent even when Democrats had made huge concessions. The conservative Brooks blasted Tea Partiers as "fanatics" that had "separated [the Republican party] from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation."
Incredibly, these same people argue that Obama is the one who has purposefully divided the country. He may be attacking Romney in a way he never would have in 2008, but let's not forget that this is a president who was lambasted by liberals for compromising too much. And it wasn't just the left who pegged Obama as weak. None other than the Weekly Standard said that "above all [Obama] prefers to get a deal, any deal, done."
Obama failed to change Washington. That will take not just a compromising president, but a compromising Congress. The project is larger than this two-man election. Still, Obama's reelection is crucial. You don't get less gridlock by voting for the party that is spearheading it.