The Polarization of Congress

Published 26 Dec 2016

At the time Nivola and Brady were assembling the collection of essays and analyses contained in Red & Blue Nation? Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics, it seemed as if the U.S. was more pided into two opposing, mutually hostile camps than any time since the Civil War. This pision was exacerbated by five years of one-party rule by legislators who abandoned the real social and economic concerns of the average citizens and instead served the interests of large corporations and unbridled, unchecked, predatory capitalism while publicly obsessing and involving themselves in “moral issues” (which in the end analysis, were meaningless), stifling all dissent and opposition and giving the executive branch unchecked power, essentially allowing it to operate outside and above the law.

During that time, the gap between the rich and poor has become the widest in the industrialized world, the budget surplus left by the preceding Administration has ballooned to eight trillion dollars and rising, the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, and the Bill of Rights has been left in tatters with the passage of the “Military Commissions Act” in September of 2006.

Since the opposition party returned to power as a result of the mid-term elections of 2006, investigations have brought many of the crimes of this President and his enablers to light, and more are being exposed on a daily basis. For better or worse, the current Administration and its cadre which has been so successful at piding the country is re-uniting it; according to recent polls, the current President has only a 30% approval rating, and members of his own party are increasingly distancing themselves from both the executive and his policies.

Nonetheless, that 30% is vehement in their continued support for Bush, and are representative of the “Great pide” in American society of which the essays in Red and Blue are an analysis. This pide is still seen in Congress where the votes on many issues (although significantly, not all as was the case between 2002 and 2006) are along party lines. Interestingly, in their introduction “Delineating the Problem,” Nivola and Galston suggest that the pide and polarization in Congress is not at all a reflection of the American electorate; in 2004, while 21 percent identified themselves as “liberal” and 34 percent as “conservative,” the majority – 45% described themselves as “moderates.

” Of these self-identified moderates, well over half voted for John Kerry in the presidential election of that year. They go on to point out that Kerry managed to (officially) carry three states in which the ballots contained initiatives to ban same-sex marriages (Bush himself had endorsed civil unions for homosexual couples during the campaign), and in fact, “moral” values (which among conservatives, is confined to matters of private sexual behavior) was a concern among a very small number of voters – possibly as little as 14%. In chapter four, E.J. Dionne acknowledges that the “religious right” played a part in the 2004 election – but it was only one factor among many, and not the most significant one. Many “red” states wound up electing Democratic governors. It would seem, as Air America talk-show host Laura Flanders has stated, that America is truly “purple.”

The polarization of Congress of which this book is a study seems less obvious since its publication in December of 2006. As investigations by Senator Henry Waxman continue to expose criminal activity of the Bush Administration, more Republican legislators (at least those up for election in 2008) are distancing themselves from the President. Some recent legislation in Congress – such as the recent war budget containing a timetable for removing U.S. troops from Iraq – are finding support among members of both parties. This would never have happened in 2005.

Nonetheless, much damage has been done both to the nation itself and its standing in the world due to this pide that enabled “one party rule” for almost half a decade. The roots of this pide go back almost forty years. The passage of the Civil Rights Act for example caused the Democratic Party – which had dominated the region for nearly a century – to lose power, while the Republican Party was able to tap into the region’s conservatism. This forced the Democrats to consolidate their base in northern states (it is interesting to note how the most conservative regions in the country roughly follow the border of the old Confederacy).

What is more telling however is Nivola’s analysis of the effects of the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two political parties were “relieved of the need” to deal with foreign policy issues and had the luxury of squabbling over the domestic agenda. It has often been asked why a sexual indiscretion was grounds for impeachment of a president while leading the nation into an illegal war on false pretenses is not. Nivola suggests that had the Lewinsky scandal occurred during the Cuban missile crisis, Congress would likely have ignored the entire issue.

In Chapter Five, Diana Mutz suggests (and there are many in agreement) that the mass media is to blame. Since Reagan ended the “Fairness Doctrine” in 1984, the “Fourth Estate” has largely abdicated its responsibility to provide “fair and balanced” news in favor of shallow, sensationalistic “infotainment” which has little real substance – but provides a substantial revenue stream. Instead of focusing on issues, election news is reduced to little more than speculation as to who is most likely to win. Mutz also points out the popularity of political talk shows such as The O’Reilly Factor or Hannity and Colmes.

She points out research suggesting that when viewers watch “uncivil” dramatic debate – even when it lacks substance – viewers are more likely to see the “other side” in a negative light. In this case, “other” means “liberal;” the one-sidedness of these shows are part of the corporate agenda to keep the “money party” in power by manipulation of public opinion.

This possibly has more to do with the polarization we see in Congress and the nation than anything else, and is part of the overall neo-conservative agenda to end American democracy as we know it and replace it with a corporatist rule by a moneyed, oligarchic elite as it is in Mexico. 160 years ago, Alexander de Tocqueville was amazed that even rural farmers living on the U.S. frontier who had little formal education were able to discuss the politics and the issues of their time quite lucidly and intelligently. These were members of Jefferson’s “yeomanry” – the middle class, the existence of which democracy depends.

Today’s schools no longer teach history or civics in any meaningful way, while the obsession with “standardized testing” (another part of the corporate agenda) effectively kills off children’s innate love for learning. As a result, most Americans do not even know who their elected representatives are (but can probably tell you all about the Brad/Jen/Angelina saga, or Brittney’s latest angst). 90% of all news outlets are controlled by five major corporations whose main priority is profit, not participation in democracy. Sadly, few Americans understand this or realize the dire economic and social consequences.

If this polarization is to end, the news media must once again embrace its role as the “fourth branch of government.” Since these mega-corporations will not do this without being forced, Congress must return to the “Fairness Doctrine,” then pass legislation that will require these corporate interests to pest themselves of their media holding. If the past several years have taught us nothing else, it is that media consolidation is dangerous to democracy and must be ended. Only through lively and open debates, based on in-depth analysis of real issues can the American People hope to fully restore true democracy in this country. (Fortunately, this issue is being raised in Congress this year.)

Work Cited

  • Nivola, P.S. and D.W. Brady. Red and Blue Nation? Characteristics and Causes of America’s Polarized Politics. (Washington D.C.; The Brookings Institute, 2006).
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