Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 1, 2014
According to a long-dominant “mainstream” media narrative in the United States, the nation’s politics and policy are crippled by terrible partisan “gridlock.” This reigning media meme says that the deadlock in Washington reflects deep “polarization” between “red” (older, whiter, more male, traditional, religious/Christian, rural, gun-owning, and Republican) and “blue” (less white, less culturally conservative, more female, more gay, younger, more urban, less Christian, and Democratic) “America.” This pervasive “great divide” among “We the people” makes it impossible for the nation’s elected officials to compromise to “get things done.”
The partisan polarization narrative is misleading in three ways:
• First, U.S. citizens are nowhere nearly as divided along “Red” and “Blue” lines as media and political elites tell us. In a recent comprehensive survey of 24 policy polls conducted in the U.S. between 2008 and 2013, the Center for Policy Attitudes and the School of Policy at the University of Maryland find “remarkably little difference between the views of people who live in red (Republican) districts or states, and those who live in blue (Democratic) districts or states” when it came to a broad range of policy issues.
Titled “A Not So Divided America,” the study suggests a hidden socially progressive majority across the Red-Blue divide and contradicts the conventional wisdom that the gridlock between Democrats and Republicans in Washington arises from deep policy disagreements in the citizenry.
• A second and related problem with the reigning “polarization” and “gridlock” narrative is that it misses the much greater and actual polarization existing between the mostly working class and non-affluent U.S. majority on one hand and wealthy U.S. citizens on the other. As numerous surveys show, when it comes to core questions like jobs, poverty, income, minimum wages, welfare, taxes, the fiscal deficit, and distribution of wealth, there are substantial policy differences between the top 1 percent of U.S. wealth-holders and the U.S. general public.
To take one among many examples, the U.S. populace has long told pollsters that the government’s main priority ought to be job creation, not deficit reduction. Affluent Americans do not agree. And here, as on the great majority of major political-economic issues today, “the 1 percent” has won the argument, in defiance of majority sentiments. Austerity dominates the political debate in ways that reflect the outsized voice of money in “our democracy.”
• Which brings us to the third major problem with the partisan polarization and gridlock narrative: its failure to distinguish adequately between the rich and the rest of us when it comes to who does and doesn’t get what they want from government. In a study released last April, leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported that U.S. democracy no longer exists. Over the past few decades, Gilens and Page determined, the U.S. political system has become “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule,” wielding wildly disproportionate power over national policy.
My latest book, “They Rule: The 1 percent v. Democracy” is, among other things, about how and why we got into this hot plutocratic mess in the self-declared homeland and headquarters of democracy. As I show, American oligarchy is not new and it’s about a lot more than big money campaign contributions.
My book is also about what we can and must to do transcend “RECD” in the U.S. today. A hint: major party electoral politics and progressive activism as usual won’t do the job.
Please join me and others to discuss these and related topics when I read from, and sign copies of, “They Rule” at Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City at 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 8, 2014.
Paul Street is an author and political commentator in Iowa City.