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SAN FRANCISCO - Last Sunday, we walked out of our hotel near Union Square and headed for a coffee joint in the South of Market. To reach our destination, we were obliged to walk through one of the city's grittier neighborhoods, but we've done it before. What could distract us from this beautiful morning?

Well, it wasn't long before we were reminded that when we don't see people in crisis, we forget how easy we have it.

If you know this part of the city, you know we were only a couple of blocks from tony shops and five-star hotels. Not far from where homeless people sleep on dingy sidewalks or in garbage-strewn alleys, you can buy a $15,000 watch, try on a $1,500 pair of shoes or stay in a $1,000 hotel room.

Yes, homelessness is a complicated issue, and people have a right to spend their money any way they choose.

But what happened to the country that looks out for the less fortunate? What happened to the country that believes in saving and financial restraint?

On this particular Sunday morning, Americans were counting down to another political crisis that testifies to all the ways that we are divided.

A day and a half later, most of the federal government would be closed for business because Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to authorize spending in the new budget year without changes to the three-year-old Affordable Care Act.

This was the week's biggest story — and perhaps the precursor to a full-blown crisis later this month if Congress permits the federal government to default on its debts. In the caterwauling of 24-hour cable news, such political controversies become all consuming.

But I kept thinking about the economic contrasts we experienced in San Francisco and wondering if the blathering of Washington insiders — and their insatiable desire to take sides and designate winners and losers — isn't distracting us from a more fundamental piece of information. In short, this country has big problems, and they won't be resolved until we reject a political culture that feeds off these kinds of hyperbolic conflicts.

About the House Republicans' tactics, Democrats complained that government can't function if it is to be held hostage to the narrow demands of an intransigent minority. True enough. But it is also true that Democrats haven't been shy about playing their own Machiavellian games when it served their purposes.

In a large and diverse nation, governing requires cooperation and compromise because without them, we can't get anything done. This simple, common sense idea used to be understood by politicians and by voters.

Now, zealous factions and their assorted handmaidens believe theirs is the only true way — and who cares if our political system suffers a nervous breakdown?

So long as these groups dominate the conversation, the country will continue to struggle.

If Americans don't trust government — and many don't — the people inside government share the blame. Whether it's a costly war in Iraq or public pension shortfalls in California, people have reasons to be suspicious of politics and politicians.

At the same time, all of us depend on government. We can't hate government and love Medicare and Social Security, schools and parks, police and firefighters, highways and transit systems and the guys who fix the sewer leak in front of the house. They are all one and the same.

Even in conservative regions, people rely on government. It was instructive to watch politicians from Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi oppose disaster relief for the New York and New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy after eagerly lobbying for federal aid after Hurricane Katrina struck their home states. (Ironically, many of the most conservative states receive more in federal support than they pay in taxes, even as the locals portray themselves as the last self-reliant Americans.)

We live in a time in which the middle class is shrinking, and the gulf between the haves and have-nots is growing wider.

And we live in a time in which economic and political realities are combining to limit the role of government in many areas.

In the first blush of the conservative movement in California, the state decided to close hospitals that serve the mental ill. Years later, many of those folks are living on the streets, except when they are in jail. It turns out it's more expensive and less effective to house them in jail rather than treat their mental illness, but this is what we've done in the name of saving money.

We don't need to abolish government. With patience and common sense, we need to be smarter about it, rejecting the nostrums of zealots who thrive on the politics of division and dysfunction.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>