Much has been written in recent years, indeed, major meetings have been held, deploring the polarization of our politics between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, secularists and religionists. While I lament the fact that our nation is divided and even paralyzed with inaction, it is important to remember that this is nothing new and is not necessarily a bad thing.

Everything depends on the urgency or the priority of what needs to be done, or can be done, in our present circumstances. Our worst polarization occurred in the mid-nineteenth century over attempts to spread slavery into territories from which it had been previously forbidden. That produced the horror of the Civil War. Fortunately, our situation is not that dire.

Abraham Lincoln called in his Second Inaugural Address for "Malice toward none, and charity for all." That was crucial in the aftermath of four years of war and more than 600,000 dead. An assassin's bullet deprived the nation of Lincoln's magnanimous leadership and plunged it into more polarization that ended only with the failure to secure the rights of freed slaves.

Years earlier, James Madison made the sober observation that "Enlightened statesmanship will not always be at the helm." As we look over the current crop of presidential candidates in both major political parties, we cannot help but notice that no one of the caliber of Lincoln is running; we must make do with what is available. So it is most of the time.

Thus, the polarization of our politics is not the sole cause of our difficulties. Indeed, without some polarization we would not be clear on what direction we should take. Politics is usually about choices between stark alternatives, not warm and fuzzy consensus among right-minded people.

When problems arise, whether in foreign or domestic affairs, there will be at least two approaches available. Given that the Republican party, historically and by conviction, is in favor of limited government, free enterprise, self control and military security, one can be sure that its policies will reflect those core principles.

President Bush may have added major functions in the form of No Child Left Behind and a Medicare drug benefit, but they were designed to encourage local and individual responsibility. Meanwhile, the president has supported savings accounts for both retirement and health care, and cuts in tax rates, as well as waging war on our Islamist enemies.

As the Democratic party, historically and by conviction, is in favor of big government, regulated enterprise, individual autonomy, and multilateral diplomacy, there is no doubt that its policies will uphold these priorities.

Before the Clinton Administration was given a shock by the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections, it favored an increase in income tax rates (barely passed) and a massive federal takeover of the nation's health care (rejected). To secure his reelection Bill Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over" and even signed a Republican welfare reform plan that offered work as an alternative and drastically reduced the welfare rolls. He avoided confronting Islamist terrorism.

It is not to be lamented that Americans have a difference of opinion concerning what policies our government should pursue, for a free country makes differences possible. These are not mere conventions but are rooted in different human passions, e.g., for a government that leaves citizens largely free to make their own choices or for one that seeks to make supposedly better decisions.

But, as Alexander Hamilton long ago wrote, in politics one must ultimately decide, and preferably not by blind or thoughtless means. It makes all the difference whether the government is limited in his functions, or not. In my opinion, a limited government promotes responsibility and moral virtue in citizens better than what has rightly been called "the nanny state."

Similarly, it makes all the difference whether the government regards the security of the nation as its foremost concern, or instead sacrifices its vital interests in the hope that our enemies will be appeased.

Now in times when public opinion favors one or the other of these fundamental alternatives, the party out of favor will "move toward the center," or in other words, attempt to appear at least friendly toward the popular view, if not to blur differences between the parties.

The virtue of the much-maligned polarization is that the public is presented with clear alternatives and is less likely to favor or oppose a political party for reasons unrelated to its principles and policies. The differences between presidential candidates of the same party are not trivial, particularly on the Republican side, but the differences between the two parties are gaping.

Contrary to the comfortable view of our politics, it is important to vote for the party and not just for the man.

ABOUT THE WRITER Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: `Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at rhreeb@verizon.net.