Polarization no. Extremism yes.
Since the time of DeTocqueville's Democracy in America, if not earlier, Americans have been aware of the tendency of their two-party system to restrain ideological polarization through an automatic process. In a two-party system, each of the parties is strongly impelled to adopt positions close to the current popular consensus, wherever that may lie. Should either one depart from the consensus on key issues, the other is likely to reap huge gains at the ballot box. The fact that the mass of Americans has long believed and trusted in the self-moderating mechanism of the two-party system accounts for the wave of lamentations over the last decade concerning a perceived slide into polarization. Common wisdom now sees the two parties as bitterly opposed, with the Republicans on the right and the Democrats on the left. With somewhat less conviction, mainstream political observers maintain that the nation is deeply divided along corresponding lines.
But the polarization of politics in the US is a myth. (1) While the parties have amplified their rhetorical venom against one another over the last decade, and while they have become more intransigent on policy questions that divide them, over the last few decades both of them have occupied positions increasingly off to the right, as measured on the spectrum of politics in developed nations over the course of the last 100 years. There is no Left at all in the US political establishment. Further, as surveys of popular opinion on key issues demonstrate with regularity, the two parties now stand well to the right of the electorate. It follows, therefore, that the self-moderating mechanism of the two-party system has broken down, and that the democratic dimension of the US system is nearly impotent. The explanation for this is no mystery: in the absence of regulations limiting spending in election campaigns, candidates depend ever more on donations from deep-pocketed individuals or corporations. In turn, politicians do the bidding of their donors, the lion's share of whom militate for policies that will transfer wealth upward. Inexorably, this dynamic has produced a degraded, extremist ideological climate that trumpets the virtues of the free market and maintains as much silence as is possible regarding government giveaways and corruption in favor of large corporations.
From Extremism to Theology
As disturbing as the ossification of the ideological climate of the US establishment over the last few decades has been, the financial crisis of 2008 seems to have triggered a devastating step downwards. The descent begins with denial of the realities of the market system in the US. Consider, first, that the financial crisis has generated a superabundance of evidence regarding the susceptibility of market institutions to corrupt rearrangement through government action. At the bidding of powerful special interests, both US parties have established a habit of shaping all manner of rules, structures, enforcement practices, and tax policies to enrich their donors. Yet, however plentiful journalistic and academic exposes of the perversion and disastrous malfunction of the system may be, neither party is willing to rethink the system. At best, the Democrats manage to despair over the current structure of the system, while stopping short of proposing genuine antidotes. The Republicans, for their part, have become immune to facts, and have chosen simply to parrot discredited pro-free market platitudes at higher volume, all while preparing ever more brazen transfers of wealth. (2) In effect, as Thomas Frank explains in Pity the Billionaire, free market extremism has now become free market theology. (3)
In these circumstances, the two parties are no longer capable even of debating systemic reforms, let alone pursuing them. This while the economy sputters, poverty spreads, new financial scandals and crises take shape, and the worst drought since at least the mid-1950s ravages the country and alerts us to the prospect of enormous or apocalyptic challenges from global warming. Fidel Castro had good reason to characterize the Republican Party's presidential candidate selection process as «the greatest competition of idiocy ever». (4)
Corporations at the Helm
Because the descent from free-market extremism to theology precludes the political establishment from approaching systemic issues honestly, progressive observers are emboldened to envision a third party or a grassroots movement like Occupy Wall Street rising up to lead the way forward. This is long overdue, of course, and we would welcome progress in this direction. Unfortunately for the US and the rest of the world, however, a very different kind of replacement for the political establishment has taken shape. Special interests appear to be graduating from their long-standing practice of lobbying for specific policies, to a point where they are formulating core positions of the government, with near total disregard for the two parties and their leaders. One example each from the state, national, and international policy levels will illustrate the trend.
Now I know what it feels like to live in Nigeria. You’re basically a resource colony for multi-national corporations to take your natural resources, take them back to wherever they are at, add value to them, and then sell them back to you.»
- recently retired Pittsburgh City Council President Doug Shields
At the state level, consider Pennsylvania Act 13, which the oil and gas industry designed and the governor signed into law earlier this year. Act 13 peremptorily undermined all local regulations that might impede the exploitation of mineral resources (in Pennsylvania's case, shale gas is the prize), and shielded mineral extraction operations from liability for any wrongdoing or damage to the environment (such as contamination of water sources, a well established hazard of fracking). It was duly characterized as «possibly the nation's worst corporate giveaway». (5) The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court has voided Act 13, but we can expect the legislature to revive it in lightly adjusted form soon, and sister bills are making their way through at least four other statehouses, coordinated through the nefarious American Legislative Exchange Council. (6)
The CEO Budget Committee and the TPP
Next, it seems that CEOs from a number of major corporations have banded together to guide (that is, pressure, and heavily) Capitol Hill on restructuring the US budget, guidance which will include hefty cuts to the nation's largest non-military programs: medicare (government health insurance for the retired), medicaid (government medical support for the poor), and Social Security (federally delivered pensions). (7) Finally, consider the US's leadership in preparing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with six Pacific nations, which is designed to grant corporations sweeping powers versus nation states that might cross their path in any way. Tellingly, the TPP will give foreign corporations all manner of powers to override the US government. It will, for instance:
Limit how U.S. federal and state officials could regulate foreign firms operating within U.S. boundaries, with requirements to provide them greater rights than domestic firms; establish a two-track legal system that gives foreign firms new rights to skirt U.S. courts and laws, directly sue the U.S. government before foreign tribunals and demand compensation for financial, health, environmental, land use and other laws they claim undermine their TPP privileges; and allow foreign firms to demand compensation for the costs of complying with U.S. financial or environmental regulations...» (8)
What we are witnessing is the eclipse of US politics. The political parties are fading away as centers of policy formulation, and are willfully stripping the government of its powers vis-a-vis business corporations. In pursuing this course, US political leaders are losing relevance as points of appeal. Financial crises will reoccur, commodity prices will gyrate out of control, global warming will imperil our ecosystem, all thanks in large part to US policies -- but the international community won't find any US politician who is able to do anything about it…
(1) Wikipedia's «Polarization (politics)» page provides a handy summary of the debate.
(2) Here the famous «Ryan Plan» is Exhibit A in a list we could extend endlessly.
(3) Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, Metropolitan Books, 2012.
(5) Steven Rosenfeld, «Fracking Democracy», AlterNet, March 7th, 2012.
(6) On Act 13, see e.g. Steve Horn, «Exposed: Pennsylvania Act 13 Overturned by Supreme Court, Originally an ALEC Bill», DeSmog Blog, July 27th, 2012.
(7) See, e.g. Dean Baker, «The CEO Plan to Steal Your Social Security and Medicare,» Common Dreams, July 30th, 2012.
(8) «US Trade Agreement Leak Reveals 'Radical New Powers' for Multinational Corporations,» Common Dreams, June 13th, 2012.