Why Our Broken Political System Falls Prey to Right-Wing Extremism
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.
LP:Does polarization in Congress and the media increase division in the population?
TF:The evidence is that people who hold an opinion on one of the handful of hot button issues that the parties debate in public tend to move toward the party that says it agrees with them. But here’s the surprise: generally not that many people do this. When they do, they don’t usually change their self-labeling. That is, they don’t move from thinking of themselves as moderates to considering themselves conservatives, for example.
LP: So you don’t think that culture wars explain polarization?
TF:No. Almost regardless of where you look, you’ll find that changes in public opinion between the 1970s and today are relatively small. On many issues, such as gay rights, the shift among the public has gone towards the left, rather than the right. Even the famous ‘liberal label’ problem is not nearly as large as people think. The number of people identifying as liberals has dropped by about 5% from the seventies to now. That hardly indicates a massive change in the way people view themselves politically.
LP:Some argue that we have ‘sorting’ among the public that leads to polarization. If I’m surrounded by like-minded people, the thinking goes, I become more extreme in my views. Is this really happening?
TF:The ‘Big Sort’ people mostly concede that opinion shifts in the population are not large. So they focus on explaining polarization by looking for some thing or things that shoehorn people into more homogeneous groups that then contend among themselves. The evidence just doesn’t support these theories. All the talk about gerrymandering has actually been debunked. There are some stunning cases, but not nearly enough to explain Congressional polarization. And you can simply observe the U.S. Senate: The Senate is about as polarized as the House — just look at the figures in my INET paper (*see link at the end of this article). Nobody has messed with the boundaries of U.S. states in the last generation. Nor does the obvious fact that Republicans replaced conservative Democrats in the South help very much. Polarization in other areas of the country is very intense; just pointing to all the right wing Republicans from the South and West does not answer the question, given the small changes in popular opinion. It just reframes the question about what really drives this process. It has to be something else.
LP:And what is that ‘something else’?
TF:In a word: money. Since the mid ’70s, more and more political money has been moving right and center-right. To understand Congressional polarization, though, you have to focus sharply on the crucial moment, which was 1994. That was the second stage of the Reagan Revolution, when Republicans took over both houses of Congress. Notice the key political players then. You have Newt Gingrich, who was organizing the GOP push in the House; Phil Gramm, who headed Senate fund raising for the GOP; and Haley Barbour, who chaired the Republican National Committee. These people weren’t ‘bowling alone’. They were free market fundamentalists. They wanted to cut taxes, on high brackets especially. They wanted to push deregulation of the financial and telecommunications industries. They wanted to abolish things like the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission and cut back the FDA, the FTC, and just about every other government regulatory agency. The one area where they liked Big Government was defense.
These anti-government, pro-corporate Republicans broke every record for raising political money. Look at Gingrich and his history in particular. When he started attacking the older Republican leaders in the House as timid and too willing to compromise, money came pouring in. Yes, they supported and allied with evangelical religious groups. But those were always secondary to the main objective, which was to deregulate the economy and roll back the New Deal in all its manifestations.
LP:How did the 1994 Republican victory affect Congress itself?
TF:When Gingrich won control of the House, he installed what amounted to a pay-to-play system internally, which forced individual representatives to compete to hold their positions on key committees and leadership posts by raising funds for the party. The effect on the House was far-reaching, because the seniority system was already pretty much dead as a result of reforms in the seventies. The movement to limit the terms of committee chairs also worked in this direction, because it meant that more posts were coming open on a regular basis. What happened was that the entire Congress became money-driven.
Positions on key committees, leadership posts — they were all being sold. The money collected then was poured into election campaigns, especially for so-called “open seats,” in which no incumbents were running and in doubtful races. The vast spending and noisy campaigns heated up the political atmosphere in and out of Washington, as the media transmitted the messages.
The Democrats looked at the Republicans’ pay-to-play system and basically decided to copy it. They did this instead of mobilizing their old mass constituencies. Today, as my paper documents, both parties are essentially posting prices for influential committee slots and leadership posts.
The Democrats’ decision to emulate the Republicans and follow the money shifts the system’s center of gravity to the right, as both parties frantically cultivate investor blocs. The result is the weird political world we live in. Behind the scenes, investor blocs and businesses maneuver for advantages in both parties. The system’s center of gravity moves to the right, checked only by the diminishing influence of unions and other mass political groups that retain some resources and influence on the Democrats. You end up with two “money-driven” parties. The parties are not identical, but they have this in common: They cannot possibly campaign only on appeals to investor blocs, so each party reaches out to select public constituencies to scrape together enough votes to win elections, in a sea of public cynicism.
Polarized politics is money-driven politics and political parties are first of all bank accounts, whatever else they do. More precisely, the current polarization of the system is the direct result of the Republicans’ attempt to roll back the New Deal and the way the Democrats responded. I regret to say I don’t see much chance that it will abate any time soon. The Obama administration’s failure to deliver “real change” has given the Republicans a new lease on life. Less than three years after the financial collapse, which handed the presidency and both houses of Congress to the Democrats on a platter, free market fundamentalism is back. Today Republicans look closer to rolling back the New Deal than they ever have. They are unlikely to see much reason to compromise; especially when the Obama administration, in the middle of trying to raise a billion dollars for the 2012 campaign, declines to press a strong defense of investments in people and regulation, not even financial regulation.
LP:Will the tsunami of money released by the Citizens United decision make polarization even more intense?
TF:Alas, the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms have been steadily watered down. The role big money plays in our electoral system was already grotesque before Citizens United, what with “527s,” independent expenditures, and other devices for spending without limits. But the Supreme Court’s decision sets corporations (and of course, any labor union that still has any resources) free to disgorge funds directly from corporate treasuries to campaigns, as long as the money is spent independently of candidates’ own campaigns. Much of this money is likely to be impossible to track in public. But it will find its way into campaigns, raise the stakes, and set off further rounds of campaign spending. It’s just going to make the carousel rotate faster. Yes, polarization is likely to persist.