Why is the nation more bitterly divided today than it’s been in 80 years? Why is there more anger, vituperation, and political polarization now than even during Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, the tempestuous struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, the divisive Vietnam war, or the Watergate scandal?
If anything, you’d think this would be an era of relative calm. The Soviet Union has disappeared and the Cold War is over. The Civil Rights struggle continues, but at least we now have a black middle class and even a black president. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been controversial, the all-volunteer army means young Americans aren’t being dragged off to war against their will. And although politicians continue to generate scandals, the transgressions don’t threaten the integrity of our government as did Watergate.
And yet, by almost every measure, Americans are angrier today. They’re more contemptuous of almost every major institution — government, business, the media. They’re more convinced the nation is on the wrong track. And they are far more polarized.
Political scientists say the gap between the median Republican voter and the median Democrat is wider today on a whole host of issues than it’s been since the 1920s.
But I think the deeper explanation for what has happened has economic roots. From the end of World War II through the late 1970s, the economy doubled in size — as did almost everyone’s income. Almost all Americans grew together. In fact, those in the bottom fifth of the income ladder saw their incomes more than double. Americans experienced upward mobility on a grand scale.
Yet for the last three and a half decades, the middle class has been losing ground. The median wage of male workers is now lower than it was in 1980, adjusted for inflation.
In addition, all the mechanisms we’ve used over the last three decades to minimize the effects of this descent — young mothers streaming into paid work in the late 1970s and 1980s, everyone working longer hours in the 1990s, and then borrowing against the rising values of our homes — are now exhausted. And wages are still dropping — the median is now 4 percent below what it was at the start of the so-called recovery.
Meanwhile, income, wealth, and power have become more concentrated at the top than they’ve been in ninety years.
As a result, many have come to believe that the deck is stacked against them. Importantly, both the Tea Party and the Occupier movements began with the bailouts of Wall Street — when both groups concluded that big government and big finance had plotted against the rest of us. The former blamed government; the latter blamed Wall Street.
Political scientists have also discovered a high correlation between inequality and political divisiveness.
The last time America was this bitterly divided was in the 1920s, which was the last time income, wealth, and power were this concentrated.
When average people feel the game is rigged, they get angry. And that anger can easily find its way into deep resentments — of the poor, of blacks, of immigrants, of unions, of the well-educated, of government.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Demagogues throughout history have used anger to target scapegoats — thereby dividing and conquering, and distracting people from the real sources of their frustrations.
Mr. Reich stumbles over the truth at the end. It’s identity politics.
All things considered Americans are in pretty good shape. We could be doing much better, but the only people starving in this country are middle-class white girls with self-esteem issues. Our poor people are suffering from obesity!
You can survive in this country without doing any work. We’ll feed you, house you and give you medical care. If you don’t want to come get it we’ll bring it to you. The poor people of Mexico endure hardships to get here because being poor here is better than being poor anywhere else.
Are you angry that Kim and Kanye have gold-plated toilets? It doesn’t bother me. I honestly don’t envy them. I don’t know what I would do with that kind of money. Waste it probably.
Identity politics is “us” versus “them”. Your life didn’t turn out like you planned? It’s their fault. Who’s “them?” That depends on who you are.
But “they” are bad and “we” are good. Another term for identity politics is tribalism. Here are Arthur Silber’s Laws of Tribal Behavior:
ONE: To the degree that membership in a particular tribe or tribes is important to a person’s sense of identity, that person believes that his own tribe(s) is inherently and uniquely good. To the degree that tribal membership is a critical element of personal identity, all members of all tribes are convinced this is true of those tribes to which they belong.
TWO: Insofar as the tribe’s centrally defining characteristic(s) (race, religion, political beliefs, etc.) are concerned, all other tribes that differ with regard to these characteristics are necessarily inferior and wrong. This has an especially critical implication: at first with regard to these centrally defining characteristics, and inevitably in a more general sense, the individual members of all other tribes are necessarily inferior to and less worthy than the members of one’s own tribe(s).
THREE: The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same. This applies to all tribes in two different critical respects. It is true of dynamics within the tribe — that is, of those particular mechanisms which create and maintain tribal identity and cohesiveness — and it is also true of how one tribe views itself and behaves in relation to other tribes.
FOUR: The major mechanism by which any tribe creates and maintains tribal identity and cohesiveness is obedience: the requirement that each member of the tribe conform his thinking and behavior in accordance with the major elements of the tribe’s belief system.
The real question is why are we getting more tribal in our politics? Part of it is demogoguery. But part of it is survival.
A while back we decided that life shouldn’t be unfair anymore. So we told government to make things more fair. With the best of intentions we created a spoils system overseen by government. Favored groups get a bigger slice of the pie and government regulators pick the winners and losers in the marketplace.
You didn’t build that so you don’t get to keep the money. The government is gonna make you share it with others. Unless of course you make the right campaign donations, in which case the government will practically guarantee you will not only make a lot of money but you’ll get to keep it too. (And if you don’t donate your competitors will.)
That kind of stuff has always been an inherent danger of government. But lately it has metastasized into a huge regulatory bureaucracy.
There is an old saying that goes “Tax the rich, feed the poor”. But you can only take so much from the rich before there aren’t any rich people left. Then some politicians figured out they could borrow the money instead of raising it thru taxes.
It was like Christmas every day. We can cut taxes on the rich, increase spending on welfare and the military, send everybody to college and buy everybody a house!
(Except now we’re running out of credit.)
Neither party has shown much interest in fixing the system because they both have a vested interest in the status quo. So they keep us feuding, fussing and a-fightin’. The parties exist to serve the party leaders.
Wait, you thought that was your party? Ha ha! How quaint.
One thing I learned in 2008 is that the Democrats were my party the same way the Oakland Raiders were my team. I could wear the colors and root for the players but I had no control over the decision making.
Free your mind.