Monday, June 19, 2006
In case you haven't noticed, modern American politics is marked by
vicious partisanship, with the great bulk of the viciousness coming
from the right. It's clear that the Republican plan for the 2006
election is, once again, to question Democrats' patriotism.
But do Republican leaders truly believe that they are serious about
fighting terrorism, while Democrats aren't? When the speaker of the
House declares that "we in this Congress must show the same steely
resolve as those men and women on United Flight 93," is that really the
way he sees himself? (Dennis Hastert, Man of Steel!) Of course not.
So what's our bitter partisan divide really about? In two words: class
warfare. That's the lesson of an important new book, "Polarized
America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches," by Nolan McCarty of
Princeton University, Keith Poole of the University of California, San
Diego, and Howard Rosenthal of New York University.
"Polarized America" is a technical book written for political
scientists. But it's essential reading for anyone who wants to
understand what's happening to America.
What the book shows, using a sophisticated analysis of Congressional
votes and other data, is that for the past century, political
polarization and economic inequality have moved hand in hand. Politics
during the Gilded Age, an era of huge income gaps, was a nasty business
- as nasty as it is today. The era of bipartisanship, which lasted
for roughly a generation after World War II, corresponded to the high
tide of America's middle class. That high tide began receding in the
late 1970's, as middle-class incomes grew slowly at best while incomes
at the top soared; and as income gaps widened, a deep partisan divide
Both the decline of partisanship after World War II and its return in
recent decades mainly reflected the changing position of the Republican
Party on economic issues.
Before the 1940's, the Republican Party relied financially on the
support of a wealthy elite, and most Republican politicians firmly
defended that elite's privileges. But the rich became a lot poorer
during and after World War II, while the middle class prospered. And
many Republicans accommodated themselves to the new situation,
accepting the legitimacy and desirability of institutions that helped
limit economic inequality, such as a strongly progressive tax system.
(The top rate during the Eisenhower years was 91 percent.)
When the elite once again pulled away from the middle class, however,
Republicans turned their back on the legacy of Dwight Eisenhower and
returned to a focus on the interests of the wealthy. Tax cuts at the
top - including repeal of the estate tax - became the party's
But if the real source of today's bitter partisanship is a Republican
move to the right on economic issues, why have the last three elections
been dominated by talk of terrorism, with a bit of religion on the
side? Because a party whose economic policies favor a narrow elite
needs to focus the public's attention elsewhere. And there's no better
way to do that than accusing the other party of being unpatriotic and
Thus in 2004, President Bush basically ran as America's defender
against gay married terrorists. He waited until after the election to
reveal that what he really wanted to do was privatize Social Security.
Pre-New Deal G.O.P. operatives followed the same strategy. Republican
politicians won elections by "waving the bloody shirt" - invoking the
memory of the Civil War - long after the G.O.P. had ceased to be the
party of Lincoln and become the party of robber barons instead. Al
Smith, the 1928 Democratic presidential candidate, was defeated in part
by a smear campaign - burning crosses and all - that exploited the
heartland's prejudice against Catholics.
So what should we do about all this? I won't offer the Democrats advice
right now, except to say that tough talk on national security and
affirmations of personal faith won't help: the other side will smear
reality. There are some commentators who long for the bipartisan days
of yore, and flock eagerly to any politician who looks "centrist." But
there isn't any center in modern American politics. And the center
won't return until we have a new New Deal, and rebuild our middle
In the first case, the system is rigged in favor of the ruling elite.
In the second case, the system works, but the people themselves are corrupt.
I'm trying hard to resist blaming people for the mess we're in, but when Bush gets more votes in 2004 than in 2000, I'm not sure that it's sensible to ignore the possibility that people simply liked Bush and his policies until he invaded Iraq.
Bring the troops home and see how easy it will be for Democrats to win elections.