On a spring day in 1984, a politician named Tip ONeill walked to the floor of the U.S. House, his face red with rage.
ONeills appearance was unusual. Speakers of the House rarely engage in debate.
On this day, however, the Washington veteran was incensed at a rowdy band of Republican rebels who were exploiting a new technology live telecasts of House debates to smack Democrats as wasteful and unpatriotic.
A little-known Georgia congressman named Newt Gingrich had recently made just such an accusation.
ONeill reached the podium, turning to face his nemesis.
My personal opinion is this, he roared. You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism, and it is the lowest thing that Ive ever seen in my 32 years in Congress!
The chamber responded in shocked silence, for just a moment.
Then a Republican quickly moved to have ONeills words taken down removed from the official record. It was an unprecedented rebuke for a House speaker, the first time such an action had been taken since 1795.
Our governments slide into dysfunction and disaster was under way.
As the nation hurtles toward the 2012 election, compromise remains a dirty word, voices of moderation have all but been drowned out, and America is critically divided, a country without a middle ground.
As a result, experts agree: Our politics are polarized to a degree unmatched since the end of the Civil War. In some states Democrats dominate. In the Great Plains, the GOP controls most of the levers of power.
Consequently, Congress struggles to make even the simplest decisions. Critical problems are unaddressed. Confidence in government plummets. Politics are paralyzed and gripped by anger, resentment and fear emotions ONeill likely felt that day.
Worse than you think
Today, Gingrich downplays the incident.
Look, this is the Tip ONeill who presided over the impeachment (proceedings) of Richard Nixon, he told The Kansas City Star. That, of course, wasnt partisan because the left liked it.
To be sure, there have been other possible tipping points in our deeply divided politics: Democrats turning back U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in the late 1980s, or President Bill Clinton facing impeachment in the 1990s, or George W. Bush winning a disputed presidential election in 2000.
But wherever you choose to start, the evidence of polarization and stalemate is clear: Hyperpartisans unwilling to compromise. Aggressive fringe politicians who exploit new technologies such as talk radio, blogs and social media to push a no-deals message to like-minded voters. And stakes considered high enough that the public sees bipartisan compromise as surrender or appeasement.
Kansans, who elected moderate Republican Nancy Kassebaum three times and helped nominate Bob Dole for president, are now represented by perhaps the most conservative congressional delegation in America. No Democrat holds a federal or statewide elected office.
Missouri, once a bellwether state represented by moderate Republican Jack Danforth, will now consider Senate candidate U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, called too conservative for Missouri by Democratic opponent Sen. Claire McCaskill.
The label actually helped his campaign in the Republican primary.