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Polarization and hot rhetoric conceal two similar political parties. Will we ever notice?

29 October 2010

Summary:  Here we discuss American politics:  the increasingly hot rhetoric and polarization — and the similarity of policies between parties.  The second in a series about the American people’s struggle to adjust to the new century; links to other chapters appear at the end.

In many ways Obama resembles Carter, both unable to function effectively due to lack of experience in politics and national affairs.  Obama has accomplished little in his first two years; with a Republican House, he’ll accomplish little in his last two.  His major significance in history might be to spark the long-expected reconfiguration of the US party structure.

A polarized America?

Elected by liberals, reviled by conservatives as leftist-anarchist-Muslim, Obama has governed as a center-right corporatist (an apostle of State capitalism), as seen in his key policies (for more evidence see  “Barack Obama: The oligarchs’ president“, Charles Ferguson, Salon):

  • economic (continuation of Bush Jr’s stimulus and bank bailout programs),
  • a bank-friendly regulatory regime (note Obama’s immediate defense of bank’s foreclosure fraud),
  • foreign affairs (in the US that means military affairs), and
  • health care (similar in outline to the one Romney, Republican governor of MA, implemented).

This follows a similar dynamic during the Bush Jr administration.  Big favors for big corporations, few rewards for social conservatives, massive deficits, foreign wars, open borders.  As they said, “this wouldn’t have happened if we elected a Republican.”

This absence of change, plus the flood of corporate money following the Citizens-United decision of the Supreme Court, has revealed to many people that America has what is in effect a one-party system.  The apparent polarization masks this convergence of views among our ruling elites.  But are the American people becoming more politically polarized?  No.  From “Partisans Without Constraint: Political Polarization and Trends in American Public Opinion“, Delia Baldassarri and Andrew Gelman (both Columbia), 28 January 2008:

In contrast, scholarly research on mass opinion polarization offers a more complex view. Scholars have shown that, over the last 40 years, American public opinion has remained stable or become even more moderate on a large set of political issues, while people have assumed more extreme positions only on some specific, hot issues, such as abortion, sexual morality and, lately, the war in Iraq.

From “Political Polarization in the American Public“, Morris P. Fiorina (Stanford) and Samuel J. Abrams (Harvard), Annual Review of Political Science, June 2008:

This article surveys the literature on mass polarization. It begins with a discussion of the concept of polarization, then moves to a critical consideration of different kinds of evidence that have been used to study polarization, concluding that much of the evidence presents problems of inference that render conclusions problematic. The most direct evidence — citizens’ positions on public policy issues — shows little or no indication of increased mass polarization over the past two to three decades. Party sorting — an increased correlation between policy views and partisan identification—clearly has occurred, although the extent has sometimes been exaggerated.

Another finding of the Baldassarri-Gelman paper:  our elites are becoming more polarized — from the rest of us:

Our work reinforces the findings of McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal (2006) on the relation between elite polarization and inequality, by suggesting that substantial partisan and issue alignment has occurred within the resourceful and powerful group of rich Americans. The wealthier part of the political constituency knows well what it wants and it is likely, now more than in the past, to a affect the political process, thus potentially increasing inequality in interest representation, not only through lobbying activity and campaign  financing, but also in the ballot (Bartels 2005).

The real polarization

We see the real polarization all around us – in the political rhetoric used by both parties.  Bush Jr was a fascist, probably a NAZI.  Obama is a socialist Moslem pretending to be an American.  This over-heated rhetoric serves an important purpose for party leaders.  As differences narrow between the parties, policy differences are replaced by personalities spewing noise.  It’s necessary to maintain party cohesion; the rank and file must believe the parties differ in some important ways.  So a host of skilled communicators work to hide the grey political consensus of our elites, painting over this a facade – rival teams of good and bad guys.   “You are evil” replaces “Your policies are bad”.   

How the America people react to this painful knowledge will determine much about the course of American history.  We might shrug and things as they are (whining loudly).  Or we might wake up and act.

Other posts in this series

(1)  Which is better? Rioting in France and Greece or snoozing in America?, 28 October 2010
(3)  Visit McDonald’s to learn all you need to know about American politics, 30 October 2010
(4)  The problem with America lies in our choice of heroes, 2 November 2010

Other posts about American politics

  1. Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
  2. About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process, 17 June 2009
  3. More about the tottering structure of the American political regime, 17 August 2009
  4. The breakdown of the American political system, pointing to a new and better future, 2 February 2010
  5. Programs to reshape the American mind, run by the left and right, 2 August 2010
  6. Which political party will best protect our liberties?, 10 September 2010
  7. Our leaders have made a discovery of the sort that changes the destiny of nations, 1 September 2010
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