Polarization: Worse Than You Think

Recent polls made it clear that Americans are fed up with acrimony and gridlock in Washington. Voters may blame Republicans more than Democrats but they're not happy with either Party. Some political observers believe that if we only had competitive elections throughout the country -- if most congressional districts weren't gerrymandered -- then we would have more moderates in Congress and, therefore, less polarization. Think again. Polarization is the new normal.

A late October NBC news/Wall Street Journal poll asked, "Do you feel that Congress is contributing to the problems in Washington?" 74 percent of respondents answered yes. A Esquire magazine survey, 13 Things That Define the New American Center, found that 49 percent of respondents agreed, "The two-party system we have in this country is broken and out of date..." And, "I never put any faith in politicians of either party because they always end up disappointing me." 58 percent were pessimistic about "politics in this country."

So, what's the problem?

If you're a Republican, you're likely to contend it's the fault of Barack Obama -- he's very unpopular with the GOP rank-and-file, the majority of whom routinely blame him for everything that goes wrong.

If you're a Democrat, you're likely to argue it's the fault of a small political group, Tea Party activists, who have taken control of the Republican Party and moved it savagely to the right. You blame the people who stand behind the Tea Party, a cabal of rich Republicans.

Both these stances are wrong.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Harvard Historian Jill Lepore discussed political polarization. She dismissed the notion that the widening gap between Democrats and Republicans is due to the rise of gerrymandered congressional districts. Lepore observed that since Reagan was President, "the parties have become more coherent and more organized." "Party leadership controls the story the party tells the press."

Lepore concluded that the core problem is economic inequality. "Polarization in Congress maps onto one measure better than any other: economic inequality." The greater the gap between the rich and the poor, "the greater the disagreement between liberals and conservatives, the less Congress is able to get done."

The United States is experiencing unprecedented income inequality. In 2011, the Congressional Budget Office found that between 1979 and 2007, "After-tax income for the highest-income households grew more than it did for any other group... 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households, 65 percent for the next 19 percent, just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent and 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent."

The chasm between the rich and the poor shifted our perception of reality. A recent study by professors Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright compared the political attitudes of these millionaires, the 1 percent, to those of the American public in general. Not surprisingly, America's wealthy are much more negative about Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and affordable healthcare than are the 99 percent.

But many Americans, the 99 percent, don't understand how bad economic inequality really is. A recent Harvard study found:

The bottom 80 percent owns only 7 percent of the nation's wealth, and the top 1 percent hold more of the country's wealth -- 40 percent -- than 9 out of 10 people think the top 20 percent should have. The top 10 percent of earners take home half the income of the country; in 2012, the top 1 percent earned more than a fifth of U.S. income -- the highest share since the government began collecting the data a century ago.

Fortunately, increasing numbers of voters have woken up to America's harsh new economic reality. A recent Gallup Poll found that only one-third of respondents believed the current distribution of money and wealth is "fair" and 59 percent felt money and wealth should be more evenly distributed. Furthermore, 52 percent agreed that the government "should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich." Bubbling below the surface of Washington politics is an underground inequality movement. But it's got a steep hill to climb.

In their book, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal observed that the growing inequality gap widens the political chasm between Republicans and Democrats and "polarization reduces the possibilities for policy changes that would reduce inequality." In other words, the greater the inequality, the more the polarization and the less the chance of getting anything done to reduce the inequality. It's America's deadly political embrace.

That's why the current Congress is one of the least productive in history. On critical issue after critical issue -- healthcare, immigration, Iran, Federal spending, food stamps -- Republicans and Democrats can't agree because their worldviews are influenced by economic inequality. For the most part, Republicans represent the 1 percent and Democrats represent the 99 percent. They come from two radically different worlds.

But don't despair. Something can be done to address economic inequity. Stay tuned.

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