Earlier in this election cycle, many observers suggested that if Barack Obama and John McCain became their parties' nominees, they would each moderate the polarizing tendencies in American politics. In the wake of the two parties' national conventions, that notion seems like a frail hope. Something is driving polarization, and it isn't the personalities.
It also isn't trends in public opinion. As Morris P. Fiorina argues in his book, Culture War?, public opinion surveys show that on most issues Americans are still bunched in the middle, contrary to the widespread belief that they are more deeply divided than they were a generation ago.
Now that Barack Obama has secured his party's presidential nomination, it is a good moment to assess the extraordinary and improbable thing that the Democrats have done. It was not intuitively obvious, particularly to those who saw the party's central task as winning back the Reagan Democrats, that the best way to retake the presidency would be to nominate an African American with an Islamic-sounding name. In the abstract, before Obama emerged, that concept had not suggested itself, and some political insiders may be excused for not immediately grasping its genius.
The delirium and delusions that surrounded computing and the Internet in the 1990s have given way to a sentiment just as dangerous--complacency. It's not just that yesterday's wonders have so quickly become routine; most of us also take for granted the basic workings of the digital environment, including the freedom for experimentation that it affords. Countries like China may control the Internet, but in our society don't the free market and the open, untamed wilds of cyberspace make it nearly impossible to clamp down on innovation?
Is reduced violence in Iraq -- reduced, that is, from its peak in 2006--a sign that the United States is finally on the road to victory? Or is U.S. strategy in the war, as Steven Simon argues in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, "stoking the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism" and consequently making Iraq ungovernable? In other words, is the Bush administration purchasing short-term stability in Iraq -- and a lulled electorate at home -- at the cost of a deepened and prolonged conflict?