In Starship Troopers [the book, not the movie], one of Heinlein’s characters makes the point that the society which governs Earth at that time isn’t necessarily the best, but that it has one redeeming feature – it works and operates reasonably well. There are many aspects to that society with which critics have taken issue over the years, especially in recent years. Some of that criticism reflects changes in society from the time at which Heinlein wrote the book, such as the fact that there is no longer the underlying feeling among a majority of the U.S. population that patriotic male citizens owed a certain unqualified duty to support their country with military service in times of war. The criticism about the details of Heinlein’s future society tends to overlook the basic point he was making about governments – they have to work well over time if they are to survive and their people are to prosper.
In turn, for popularly-supported governments to work reasonably well, the citizens have to have a common set of core values and socially and legally enforced basic rules that apply to all. Today, I think it’s fair to say that the U.S. government may still work, but there’s a real question as to whether it works reasonably well, and an even greater question as to how long it will work under the current deadlock between the two political parties, whose espoused core values are becoming increasingly divergent, and who keep coming up with more and more exceptions to those core values with which one group or another disagrees.
In the worst of cases when the core beliefs of citizens differ widely, each side perceives the other as an extremist, if not an out-and-out enemy, which is the case in all too many Middle East countries today. In the United States, the situation is structurally different. Those who are politically active tend to be more extreme in their beliefs. Whether politics attracts extremists or extremists flock to politics to attempt to impose their beliefs on others, the result is exactly the same. Those active in political parties are more extreme in their views than the vast majority of Americans, and the most extreme views tend to dominate party politics.
This growing extremism among political activists has several impacts. First, the percentage of Americans who identify with either major political party has declined steadily, to the point where independent voters outnumber either Republicans or Democrats. In 1940, for example, less than 20% of voters identified as independents, while today the number of independents is approaching 50% of those eligible to vote. Second, the ideological gulf between Republicans and Democrats is at the widest point ever measured, and widening, and greater percentages of each party are inclined to portray the “other party” as the enemy.
Current and past history demonstrate clearly that great and unbending ideological differences make workable governing difficult, if not impossible, and yet the extremists in both Democrat and Republican parties, particularly the Republican party at present, are advocating even greater extremism as solution to governmental deadlock. Neither seems willing to recognize that extremism in pursuit of ideological purity has never resulted in a workable government and has, if unchecked, always led to disaster, and that in the end, the only beneficiaries are the arms merchants and the undertakers. But then, the extremists always insist that it’s the other party that’s extreme.