2011 Not the Very Worst, But Definitely in the Bottom 10
The polarization of political parties has reached its highest level in over a century
December 30, 2011
2011 was not literally the worst year for the U.S. government in American history. Off the top of my head, I can think of four that were worse: 1812, in which the country rushed into war on a narrow party line vote and without any military preparation; 1856, in which Rep. Preston Brooks nearly caned Sen. Charles Sumner to death on the Senate floor; 1860, during which Congress fiddled while the Union smoldered until it caught fire; and 1930, in which a short-sighted, economically illiterate Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, intensifying the Great Depression. President Hoover called the bill "vicious, extortionate, and obnoxious" days before he signed it into law, earning with the stroke of a pen the obloquy to which history consigned him.
Still, of the 223 years since the government first convened under the Constitution, 2011 must be ranked in the bottom 10. Seldom has so little progress been made on the daunting array of challenges we face. Seldom have the political parties cooperated so poorly. And never before has the full faith and credit of the United States been so recklessly jeopardized by political neophytes whose zeal so far exceeded their knowledge. By the end of 2011, public trust in government, confidence in Congress, and optimism about the future had all plunged to near-record lows.
There's a reason for this: Culminating a process stretching back four decades, the polarization between the parties reached its highest level in more than a century. A political science study found that by the end of 2010, the ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans had disappeared in both the House and the Senate. The most conservative Democratic senator (Ben Nelson) was a tad to the left of the most liberal Republican (Olympia Snowe). No wonder party-line votes have become the new normal on important legislation, or that the Senate minority has resorted to obstruction far more often than compromise.
No democracy can be healthy when only 1 in 5 citizens trusts its government and only 1 in 10 has confidence in its legislature. But that's where we are today: 2011 may not have been the worst year ever, but it was bad enough. And 2012 may not be any better.