CAPE ELIZABETH — With primary season over in Maine, and nearly over nationally, it is clear not only that the divisions between our political parties are vast, but also that American politics features a level of ideological diversity not seen for several decades. It remains an open question, however, whether our political institutions can handle this diversity and the conflict that goes with it.

Our current political culture must be unrecognizable to the remaining members of the Greatest Generation, who lived through World War II and graduated to governing America for the balance of the 20th century.

Following the death of FDR, America was governed by a series of presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford and Carter – whose ideological differences seem trivial compared to the ones we see today. With little deviation, these presidents accepted the New Deal as the core of American domestic policy, and anti-communism as the core of American foreign policy. Congress largely followed suit.

Fast forward to today. The internecine differences within today’s GOP alone seem greater than the post-war conflict between the major parties. Recent and potentially future Republican candidates for president demonstrate as much.

Once you strip away their position on abortion rights, Rick Santorum, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan agree on very little. Throw in the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and you see a party with substantial ideological diversity even within its own ranks.

While the Republican Party appears to be, and likely is, more fractured than the Democratic Party, it was not long ago that Ralph Nader was siphoning votes from Al Gore and the Green Party appeared to be growing.

The fractious state of our politics is alarming to those nostalgic for the old days of reaching across the aisle, where Democrats and Republicans jousted but ultimately compromised and then had a few drinks together. That America experienced unprecedented prosperity during this era of political comity has only heightened the longing to go back in time.

But today’s political diversity isn’t unique in American history, nor is it unusual among contemporary western nations. The decades leading up to the Civil War featured tremendous variation among political parties and coalitions, culminating in a bloody resolution, while the decades immediately prior to the Great Depression saw significant third- and fourth-party candidates for president.

Today, internationally, Great Britain’s House of Commons has members aligned with 12 different parties; Australia’s House of Representatives has members from eight parties, and Canada’s House of Commons has members from five.

The question is: Can America’s contemporary political institutions effectively resolve the political disputes that accompany this ideological diversity? The paralysis of recent years suggests that we are having a difficult time of it.

From the debt ceiling debates, to the sequester, to the government shutdown, Congress has veered from one crisis to another. Larger issues like immigration reform, tax reform, and entitlement reform have barely moved, despite a bipartisan consensus that they need attention. It is clear that the differences within the parties have contributed to this dysfunction just as much as the differences between the parties.

While the presidency is inherently immune to the infighting that has plagued Congress over the past five years, it, too, has suffered. Congressional paralysis hasn’t subdued various groups’ desires for results, and so they have pressured the president to take unilateral steps to solve problems.

While President Obama’s actions on immigration enforcement and climate change likely are within his powers, they nevertheless reflect a degree of legislating that the president himself would prefer be handled by Congress.

This is no way to run a country, and yet we have to be realistic and acknowledge that the ideological diversity among Americans is only increasing. Instead of closing our eyes and wishing that we could go back to the Johnson administration, it is essential that we reform our political institutions to accommodate this new reality.

There is much to do. Our campaign finance laws are patchwork, broken and, now, largely made by judges. The presidential nomination and election system is anti-democratic. We’ve permitted political insiders to gerrymander the U.S. House in ways unimaginable 50 years ago. And our Congress is bound by parliamentary rules older than the steam engine.

Reforming these institutions of government, and others, will be crucial to our democracy’s ability to resolve political disputes in a racially, culturally and now ideologically diverse America.

Let’s get started.

— Special to the Press Herald