Monday, August 1, 2016

The Myth of Party Polarization

The Myth of Political-Economic Party Polarization

“I actually think the divide is not that wide…. When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans — we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines”
President Obama, November, 2013

It is difficult to read anything about American politics today without coming across the claim that the political system is more polarized than at any time in recent history and that this is the source of current intractable gridlock.  However, as it pertains to the political-economic policy dimension, I believe the claim is false and is due to a misconception of what polarization would involve, and the actual type of division and animosity that actually characterizes party politics today.  

Technically, polarization of the political parties would involve each of the two parties moving in opposite directions toward the left and right ends of the political spectrum. A stylized example of a theoretical party polarization is represented in Figure A.  Here you have, over a 30 year period, the Democratic Party moving toward the left end of the political spectrum and the Republican Party moving toward the right end of the political spectrum. They are moving in opposite directions and toward opposing ideological poles  


A more accurate representation of the political-economic shifts of the two parties is presented in Figure B. Here we have, since 1970, both parties moving toward the right end of the political spectrum. But even though both parties have moved to the right, fueled by their dependence on and cultivation of corporate campaign contributions, the distance between the two parties can still widen if one party is moving more radically to the right than the other. This describes the Republican Party. As political scientists Mann and Ornstein put it in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,  “The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”  When one of only two parties takes an extreme ideological position, sharp political division is the logical outcome.  This results in a growing distance between the parties despite the fact that they have been moving in the same direction.

The alternative perspective presented here on the issue of polarization is based on what we know about the Democratic Party, beginning with the Carter administration, but solidified under Clinton, that involved a clear departure from New Deal social democratic principles and an embrace of more conservative neoliberal political-economic policies. Among the most notable under Clinton were the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.   All three of these pieces of legislation moved the Democratic Party to the right as part of the “triangulation” strategy adopted by the Clinton administration.  The Obama administration has done little if anything to reverse policy in these three areas and, in terms of trade agreements, has actually pursued a deepening of the global neoliberal apparatus as evidenced by his promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

So, if the parties have moved in the same direction, what accounts for the real hostility and antagonism between the parties and party members?  I would like to offer two simple concepts, based on the existence of a two-party versus multiparty system, which might provide a partial explanation.

First is what I call zero-sum partisanship. This means that (as in a zero-sum game) any gain for one party (electorally or legislatively) is viewed as a loss for the other; and any loss for one is viewed as a gain for the other. Under this destructive arrangement, the notion that there might be a mutually beneficial agreement or a basis for cooperation or compromise between the two parties becomes increasingly unlikely.   

A second closely associated feature of our party system is binary partisanship.  As with a binary numerical system, you are either a 1 or 0.  One’s political identity, and the tone of political discourse, is shaped by one’s location into one category or the other. If you criticize a Republican you must be a Democrat. If you criticize a Democrat, you must be a Republican. If you are not a 1 you must support a zero. There is no space in a binary system between 0 and 1; nor is there the option for a 0 to choose a 2, as this would automatically be interpreted as assisting 1, and thus supporting a “spoiler”.

When Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee, was recently asked why the party was now embracing Trump, he replied, "It’s a binary choice. It’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton."

Principled non-partisanship under the zero-sum and binary conditions becomes nearly impossible.  Antagonism and mutual distain becomes the norm.

All of this has produced partisan co-dependent relationship between the two parties; each depending on the other to serve as the nemesis against which to generate antipathy among their base.   Instead of offering a politically principled policy agenda, the parties are content to mobilize voters on the basis of the claimed horrors that will result if the opposition is victorious.

For example, in soliciting support and campaign contributions in the current election, Hillary Clinton has made the following pitch: “Donald Trump is not a normal candidate, and if he beats us, it will be more than a defeat at the ballot box — it will be a once-in-a-generation setback for our values and our shared idea of what America means.”​

Rather than proposing a progressive left agenda, as one might expect if ideological polarization were occurring, Clinton, and the Democratic Party of recent election campaigns, is content to run on defending the status quo from the reactionary right. This is aptly described by Matt Karp, in a recent article in Jacobin, as “fortress liberalism” – “the dominant mentality within the Democratic establishment”.

In short, the notion of political party polarization must be examined more carefully and critically as it suggests that not only is there extremism from both parties, but that the Democratic Party has somehow moved sharply to the left. On the central matter of political economic ideology, this characterization is clearly false. The fact that the greatest challenge to the Democratic establishment has come from the progressive social democratic left, and that that ranking officials of the Chamber of Commerce of Commerce and Wall Street moguls such as Michael Bloomberg are now actively supporting Hillary Clinton for President, provides further dis-confirming evidence of the ideological party polarization claim.

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