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Why Our Broken Political System Falls Prey to Right-Wing Extremism

Thomas Ferguson explains how the polarization of our politics and the influx of corporate cash steer our politics to the right.

Lynn Parramore caught up with Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Ferguson at the annual INET conference in Bretton Woods. Ferguson, father of the Investment Theory of Politics, explains why polarization has completely gripped Washington — and why the New Deal is getting rolled back in the process.

Lynn Parramore: What’s polarization in politics and how did it start?

Thomas Ferguson: Polarization is a sharp intensification of divisions between the major political parties. The tensions between them now run through the entire system, including the Supreme Court and state and local governments. Congressional polarization is the most visible form right now and surely a key link in the whole process. Both national parties have spent enormous amounts of time and money painting each other in the worst possible terms — to the point that some Republicans have repeatedly cast aspersions on the patriotism of the Democrats.

The split between the two major parties first widened out in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It showed in a sharp increase in the number of votes in Congress along party lines — that is, votes in which a majority of Democrats opposed a majority of Republicans and vice versa. But notice this, because it is extremely important: While the two parties name call and indeed often stalemate, the center of gravity of the whole political system moves steadily to the right. This is every bit as important as all the public discord and angry rhetoric. Just look, for example, at the current debates on entitlements. In 1954, President Eisenhower famously dismissed critics of Social Security and unemployment compensation as “stupid.” Now leaders in both parties are talking about all kinds of big budget cuts, even though many Americans have been out of work for long periods and have watched their savings and the values of their homes sink, while they were forced to bail out the financial sector.

LP: How does polarization affect what Congress does?

TF: When you have divided government — that is, a president of one party with the opposition controlling one or both houses of Congress — the process of confirming nominations grinds to a halt. And even if you don’t have divided government, members of Congress spend a great deal of time posturing. More congressional votes happen that are not meant to actually pass anything, but rather to send signals to outside groups and supporters. For example, Republicans may craft a bill on abortion that has no chance of being signed into law. But introducing it forces everyone to take a stand. This projects hot button divisions beyond the Congress itself to energize outside constituencies. But polarization’s most obvious effect is to deadlock the legislative process. Look, for example, at the way the government has come right to the brink of shutting down over the budget or how climate change legislation has been shelved, as every form of compromise falls through. In the Senate, working control now means not a simple majority of 51, but a “super-majority” of 60, as the minority party routinely threatens to filibuster measures it dislikes.

LP: What’s the relationship between political polarization and the media?

TF: The press powerfully amplifies partisanship. Statistical studies of media content suggest that the language newspapers use to describe politics varies systematically. Their news stories tend to employ the favorite buzzwords of one of the political parties rather more than the other. Some papers, for example, may describe inheritance taxes as “death duties” — a term favored by Republicans. Others just talk about inheritance taxes.

What’s interesting is that word choice appears to reflect not the mix of voters in the area covered by the newspapers — that is, their readers — but the split in political contributions originating in individual media markets. In other words, the language of the papers reflects the terms each side’s partisans prefer, with the balance in each market tilting in favor of the locally dominant bloc of political contributors. Campaign contributors are mostly very affluent; what we have here is a top-down process of language imposition. Congress speaks; America listens, whether it likes it or not, as the papers record the discussion in their locally biased way.
This amplification of polarization in the media, in turn, encourages polarization in Congress. We get a feedback loop running between the media and political institutions.