Washington and the Art of the Possible

CHICAGO – These days, the United States media are full of ordinary Americans venting their rage at the incompetence and immaturity of their politicians. Even though the US government’s debt limit was raised in the nick of time, the process was – and remains – fraught with risk. Why, the public asks, can’t politicians sit down together like sensible adults and come up with a timely agreement that commands broad consensus? If we can balance our household budgets, they ask irately, why can’t our political leaders?

The reality, though, is that US politicians reflect the views of the American electorate – views that are fundamentally inconsistent. The absence of broad consensus is no wonder. Indeed, the last-minute agreement to raise the debt ceiling is proof that the politicians did what they were sent to Washington to do: represent their constituencies and only compromise in the interests of the country as a whole.

The key question is whether the political gridlock exposed by the debt-ceiling debate will worsen in the run-up to the 2012 presidential and congressional elections – if not beyond. That is possible, but we should not overlook cause for hope in what America’s politicians just accomplished.

Let’s start with why the electorate is so polarized. There are two key divisive factors: income and age. Income inequality has been growing in the US over the last three decades, largely because the labor market has increasingly demanded skills that the education system has been unable to supply. The everyday consequence for the middle class is a stagnant paycheck and growing employment insecurity, as the old economy of well-paying low-skilled jobs with good benefits withers away.