Our experiment in self-government has progressed to the point where the differences in our increasingly complex country are now the salient feature of public life. They are certainly not as fundamental as the questions of slavery or civil rights, but they are deep and growing deeper nonetheless. The role and size of government, individual rights to privacy, immigration, the definition of marriage and the like are all driving polarization, not just in Washington, but in Peoria and Albuquerque and Manchester. The result is a country that is becoming shriller, more willing to demonize opponents and less united. This deep corrosion of political life is directly responsible for Americans’ growing sense of alienation.
There is, for many Americans, nowhere to turn to find a sense of common meaning. Not politics: Nine out of 10 polls followed by Real Clear Politics in December 2013 recorded that 60 percent or more of respondents feel the country is on the wrong track, with some polls reaching as high as 66 percent. Politicians are despised as a class, with congressional approval at an astonishingly low 6 percent, according to a year-end Economist/YouGov poll. Not the courts: The Supreme Court is now viewed unfavorably by nearly half the country, being seen as increasingly partisan after its controversial 2000 election ruling and 2012 Obamacare decision. Not religion: It’s increasingly a private affair, and has become a source of growing contention between believers and often-secular elites. Only American popular culture substitutes for a sense of community, with sports and film stars looked up to as exemplars despite their often lurid and sensational antics and unreachable wealth.