America is not "polarized": it's a land where a small minority tyrannize the supermajority

Writing in the New York Times, Tim Wu (previously) describes the state of American politics after decades of manipulation dirty tricks and voter suppression, where policies with extremely high levels of public approval like higher taxes on the super-rich (75%), paid maternity leave (67%), net neutrality (83%), parallel importation of pharmaceuticals from Canada (71%) and empowering Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices (92%) are nevertheless considered politically impossible.

Of course the thing that all these policies have in common is that they would make life vastly better for nearly all of us, while making the super-rich a very little worse off.

As Wu points out, this is not a picture of a "heavily polarized" nation, as the pundits would have it. These policies are wildly popular and are outside of the political mainstream because a minority have figured out how to suppress the will of the supermajority.

This is clearly by design. Libertarian thinkers -- at least those who subscribe to the Ayn Radnian idea that a small number of people are innately superior and thus should be liberated from the constraints of lesser people -- have long fretted about the danger that democracy poses to these supermen (see, for example, Peter Thiel's infamous belief that "democracy is incompatible with freedom").

This point is forcefully and frighteningly made in Nancy MacLean's 2017 book Democracy in Chains, which, despite some serious defects, is excellent at explaining the "anti-majoritarian" project that has been at the heart of right-wing politics since Reconstruction.

The defining political fact of our time is not polarization. It’s the inability of even large bipartisan majorities to get what they want on issues like these. Call it the oppression of the supermajority. Ignoring what most of the country wants — as much as demagogy and political divisiveness — is what is making the public so angry.

Some might counter that the thwarting of the popular will is not necessarily worrisome. For Congress to enact a proposal just because it is supported by a large majority, the argument goes, would amount to populism. The public, according to this way of thinking, is generally too ill informed to have its economic policy preferences taken seriously.

The Oppression of the Supermajority [Tim Wu/New York Times]