BECAUSE WE'RE AT the start of the electoral roller coaster, the part where the car slowly chugs upward, building anticipation for the gut-wrenching plunges and loop-the-loops ahead, I'd like to distribute a little political Dramamine.
It has become a central ritual of our times for Beltway priests like the Washington Post's David S. Broder to lament the coarseness, acidity and all-around ickiness of our polarized political culture. They're not absolutely wrong. All I need to do to appreciate the toxicity of the political culture is check my e-mail each morning.
Ronald Reagan, the left and the right have grown ever more snappish with each other. Each feels entitled to take the wheel without suffering any backseat driving. Each side feels the other is illegitimate in some way, which somehow justifies their nastiness. That can be a shame, but really, it's not the end of the world.
We've seen worse. For example, in his 2004 book, "The Two Americas," Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg proclaimed: "Our nation's political landscape is now divided more deeply and more evenly than perhaps ever before."
This might strike some — say, anyone who's seen the scene in "Gone with the Wind," in which all those Civil War dead and wounded are laid out like cordwood — as a bit of an exaggeration. Call me crazy, but such bloodshed seems like a deeper sign of division than a bunch of partisan bloggers sweatily pounding their keyboards, or liberals and conservatives watching different cable news networks.
Denouncing partisanship doesn't make anyone pure of heart. Uniters can be motivated by selfishness just as dividers can be on the side of the angels. Have you noticed how the people most concerned about political polarization tend to be politicians in power? Arnold Schwarzenegger has refashioned himself as a "post-partisan" governor in the hopes of bridging the supposedly terrible divisions in California. Maybe the guy who called Democrats "girlie men" in 2004 really has had a change of heart. Or maybe it dawned on him that partisanship, although really useful for getting elected, is a handicap when it's time to govern or burnish your record.
Or consider the incumbent-protection racket we call campaign finance reform. Sitting senators and other politicians think it's sacrilegious for their super-duperness to be questioned by anyone, let alone a group so base and low as politically engaged citizens. So they create laws that make it hard for challengers and critics to get heard. Negative and anonymous third-party ads are banned near elections in the name of promoting "civility."
This attitude reminds me of "The Simpsons" episode in which Montgomery Burns' political aspirations are dashed when Lisa Simpson exposes his past as an environmental criminal. "Ironic, isn't it Smithers?" Burns says. "This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That's democracy for you."
Many of our greatest heroes were men and women who were willing to rock the boat. If consensus is such a high political value, then the abolitionists, suffragettes and civil rights marchers are all villains.
Indeed, unity is overrated and often undemocratic. Decrying the "culture war" and "polarization" is something decent people are supposed to do, like recycling or paying more for organic breakfast cereal that tastes like cat litter. But the alternative is no great shakes.
Hillary Clinton leads an all-star cast of politicians who wax poetic on their desire to get beyond politics, move past partisan labels or put ideology aside. When you hear that rhetoric, consider this as a translation: "Those who disagree with me should shut up and get onboard the progress train."
I have never witnessed anyone who said that we need to get beyond ideology actually abandon his own position for the sake of unity.
For example, Al Gore constantly says the time for debating global warming is over and the time for unified action is now. But he says that because he wants the other side to stop being such a pain in his neck by disagreeing with him. Gore critics and fans alike can agree that he would be an idiot and an intellectual coward if, valuing unity over substance, he switched sides. Similarly, activists on both sides of the Iraq war may think that unity's nifty, but few seem willing to embrace the opposition's view to achieve it.
The 2008 election is going to be a horror show of name-calling, cheap shots and spittle-flecked outrage. Some of the vitriol will be unfair and beyond the pale, and that's to be condemned. But democracy is about disagreement, and you can't have the former without the latter. So maybe we should stop griping and try to enjoy the ride.