By Robert A. Vella
America’s institutional establishment – those politicians, business leaders, and media pundits who reside in a sanitized and incestuous bubble apart from the lives of ordinary citizens – has once again displayed a self-serving disregard for any realities which cast a negative light upon it.
The Pew Research Center’s report released this week on the nation’s worsening societal polarization provides yet another example of this detachment. The prevailing theme heard across the airwaves Thursday blamed “political partisanship” for the increase in polarization. As John Sides editorialized on The Washington Post:
The Pew report doesn’t get into the origins of these trends. But I think the prevailing view in political science — for example, in Matt Levendusky’s “The Partisan Sort” or this article by Marc Hetherington– is this: political leaders polarized first, and the public has followed.
Sides also trivially equated political partisanship with sports fanaticism as if public policy were of no more importance than athletic entertainment:
The key here is not that people have become more attached to their own party. It’s that they’ve become more hostile to the other party. So polarization in American politics shouldn’t be understood as purely about ideology or issues — although that is certainly a component. It’s also about how people feel about the parties as groups. Partisan politics is increasingly like sports: you not only root for your team, but you really dislike the other. (Think Redskins vs. Cowboys or North Carolina vs. Duke.)
Perhaps even more troubling was his inference that participation in democracy cannot be civil:
People who are consistently liberal or conservative are much more likely to vote or donate. This may not be surprising. But it speaks to a real tension that is often unacknowledged. On the one hand, many bemoan the fact that so many Americans don’t know facts about politics or don’t vote in elections. On the other hand, many bemoan partisanship and ideology and yearn for moderation and compromise. Well, to put it bluntly, we don’t get to have a politically engaged public and a moderate one.
Considering the profound socioeconomic changes that have transpired in the U.S. over the last 3-4 decades, the hierarchical disconnect between The Establishment and The People exhibited by Mr. Sides seems most egregious. Over that span, inequality in America’s economic, political, and judicial systems have risen to alarming levels which threaten the very stability of the country. Americans are not becoming more polarized merely because of arbitrary politics, but because their deteriorating quality of life is making them more amenable to extreme political views.
Michael Eric Dyson vociferously expressed this populist angst from the political left on The Ed Show Thursday (see: The Nation’s Great Divide). The stunning upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor after Tuesday’s Republican primary election in Virginia captures well the populist angst on the political right – albeit for more complex reasons. Right-wing populism in America is further complicated by racial and religious tribalism, although the root economic causes are consistently shared across the political spectrum.
The issue of inequality-triggered populism is raising alarm bells throughout the developed world. Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has been trying – along with other notable figures – to convince world leaders to start addressing the problem. Even Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has admitted the “destabilizing” potential of income inequality, as ThinkProgress‘ Bryce Covert detailed on Friday:
Rising income inequality comes with a host of negative consequences: It pushes Americans into more debt, makes them sicker, makes them less safe, and keeps them from moving up the economic ladder. It also hurts economic growth, while addressing it through modestly redistributive policies doesn’t.
And it destabilizes the political system, as Blankfein predicts. Research has found that high inequality leads to a less representative democracy and a higher chance of revolution as the less well off come to believe that the government only serves the rich. And those people would be right, as our current political system is far more responsive to the wealthy — like Blankfein himself — and doesn’t listen to what the middle class and poor want and need.
Unfortunately, these admonitions from within establishment circles seem to be largely falling on deaf ears (see: Someone finally polled the 1% – And it’s not pretty). Apparently, a stubborn commitment to the status quo will be maintained indefinitely by the entrenched power elite. The costs of their intransigence will be eventually realized, though no one can say right now just how painful or destructive it might be.
Meanwhile, increasing economic stress and the widespread availability of firearms has created an epidemic of gun violence in the U.S. (see: Another school shooting, and America is completely ignoring what’s causing it). The European Union is struggling to survive amidst a resurgence of political radicalization. The Middle East is awash in sectarian warfare, South Asia is in turmoil, anarchy rules much of Africa, and the callous machinations of geopolitical imperialism continue to wreck devastation upon unsuspecting peoples all around the globe.
But, in the halls of America’s institutional establishment, the sound of “all is well” chimes loudly.
Further reading on the Pew report: 7 things to know about polarization in America