The problem with the current members of Congress isn't that they're partisan -- it's a political institution, after all -- but that collectively they're dysfunctional. They've been flirting with self-inflicted disasters for two years, seemingly unable to solve obvious and surmountable problems until the damage has already been done. That's because too many lawmakers seem trapped in ideological silos, unable to acknowledge that folks on the other side might actually have the same goals, and incapable of finding mutually acceptable ways to reach them.
The breakdown in the nation's capital reflects the sort of intellectual burrowing-in that's frequently on display in the comments section of this blog. People are not just certain they're right; they're convinced that those who disagree with them are evil, moronic or both. The result is a schizophrenic public sentiment about government.
"I've never found bipartisan compromise to be so anethema to many of my constituents," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said in a recent interview. The key word there is bipartisan, not compromise. According to Schiff, polls show that people actually want compromise, "but they want the other side to do the compromising."
But a similar critique could be made of a Democratic Party that has been pulled to the left, with "Blue Dog" Democrats vanishing almost as quickly as moderate Republicans. This hollowing-out stems in large part from efforts by both parties to create safe legislative districts, where the main challenge to incumbents comes from more extreme members of their own parties during the primaries. Democrats drift left, Republicans drift right, and no one's left representing the middle.
It's worth remembering that we've always been a country divided into red and blue, rural and urban, conservative and liberal. We just seem to have forgotten how to get past our differences of opinion in search of common ground over shared values.
With that in mind, I highly recommend "Americans." (Be forewarned before clicking on the link: there are profanities aplenty.) It's a new short film by music-video-director Jameson Stafford based on a story by its stars, rapper/rocker Kid Rock (real name: Bob Ritchie) and actor Sean Penn. Appearing as their bad-boy selves, Rock and Penn meet ugly in a bar and get into a slow-boiling argument over politics.
You'll find no spoilers here. What makes it effective is the credibility of Rock, a self-proclaimed redneck who is famously backing fellow Michigan native Mitt Romney, and Penn, a notoriously liberal activist who's supporting President Obama (and Hugo Chavez, but that's another story). The two men don't pound each other to a pulp, although that might have made for a good video as well.
The clip is billed as a public service film, and it makes what may be a hackneyed point about people not having to agree in order to get along. It's such an obvious truth, and yet so elusive at a time when terms like "socialist" and "racist" get tossed out blithely and routinely.
I don't mean to sound too much like Rodney King here, or to minimize the philosophical differences that divide Republicans and Democrats on such fundamental issues as the role of government and the right way to promote economic growth. But I will borrow a line that King uttered as riots flared in Los Angeles 20 years ago: "We're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out."
A tip of the hat to Gary Hall of Los Angeles for calling my attention to Stafford's video. Hall is an astute critic of The Times' work, mine included, who nevertheless keeps the dialog going.
Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey