Oct 21st 2013

The Roots of Our Political Dysfunction

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Political commentators have been working overtime trying to explain why and how American politics have become the dysfunctional mess the world saw on display in recent weeks.

The question, as it has been framed, is: how could a minority of hard-line extremists generate enough fear that they were able paralyze their party's leadership forcing the government to shut down and bringing the nation to the brink of default? 

The answers have varied, with fingers being pointed in several directions. High on the list of culprits have been: the role played by "big money" in distorting our political process; the fact that congressional districts have become so "gerrymandered" that elections for the House of Representatives are no longer competitive between the two parties; and the degree to which ideologically-based media has poisoned our political discourse. Also receiving  mention are: the Tea Party and the influence of other powerful influence groups; the lack of comity between the parties in Congress; and everyone's new favorite target - the demagoguery of Senator Ted Cruz.  

These observations are correct, but only to a point. Many of the items identified are, in fact, problems. But they are either mere symptoms of the deeper disease that has distorted our political culture, or they are the "enablers" that have facilitated the growth and spread of the disease. 

The root causes of our current disorders are maladies that run deep, embedded in our nation's psyche. There is the residual aftershock from 9/11. There is the continuing trauma from the economic crisis of 2008/2009.  There are the anxieties experienced by those who have recoiled in the face of rapidly changing social and sexual mores. And then there's the matter of race.   

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 that took the lives of 3,000 innocents, ended the decade of relative peace and prosperity that had defined the post-Cold War Clinton era. Although we had defeated the Soviets and had emerged as the world's sole super-power, in an instant, our sense of security collapsed and we were reminded of our vulnerability. 

Sitting glued to our televisions, we didn't just watch the drama unfold, we personally experienced the horror and tragedy and claimed it as our own. The residual impact of all this is not unlike a collective post-traumatic shock syndrome. Many still retain a sense of vulnerability and anger, and are prone to or susceptible to exaggeration, elevating even minor menaces into existential threats.

This sense of "being on the edge" was compounded by the economic collapse of 2008 - which hit the country like a punch in the gut. Stock values plummeted, taking a huge bite out of pension funds; one in five homeowners feared mortgage foreclosure; unemployment doubled; and for many faced with growing economic insecurity the "American Dream" died. Banks and auto companies were bailed out, but middle class Americans who had worked hard and played by the rules were forced to bear the brunt of the collapse.  

The election of 2008 played out against this backdrop. In this contest, two themes emerged, both reflecting different reactions to the crisis. For his part, Barack Obama sought to generate a sense of hope and optimism, speaking "to the angels of our better selves". On the other hand, his opponents, principally Sarah Palin, preyed on the insecurity and resentment, using ridicule, anger, and fear.     

This continued, after the election, taking on the added dimension of  xenophobia combined with racism, as the opponents of new President discovered that they could whip up crowds to a frenzy by questioning whether Barack Obama was a Muslim or whether he was even born American.

There are those who still argue that the Tea Party was a reaction to growing budget deficits or the fear of government control and "death panels" that would come with what was called "Obamacare". While these were, in fact, the issues raised by the Tea Party, they were not its cause. A review of polling data, or just a casual glance at the attendees and signs carried at Tea Party rallies, establishes that this was largely a movement of angry and insecure middle-aged, middle class, white people. To this group's fear that the American Dream had ended, was now added the not so subtle resentment that a young, smart African American male was sitting in the White House.   

Add to this the dramatic changes occurring in contemporary social and sexual mores, which gave birth to the so-called "values voters" movement, and you have the brew which has spawned our current political disorder. 

The world view of this group, that became the base of what we call the Tea Party, reflected the traumas that brought them into existence. It is, in a word, infantile. It is Manichean and absolutist - seeing the world in black and white. And it is apocalyptic - seeing it necessary to destroy so that a "new order" can come into being. Dangers are everywhere. In their world, purity is a requirement and compromise and negotiations are evil.

One must be sympathetic, to a degree, because these folks are hurting. Their insecurity is real and their anger, though misdirected, can, to some extent, be justified. But the danger they represent cannot be understated or dismissed. 

They were exploited by some in the Republican establishment who believed they could simply use the anger of this constituency as fodder to advance the agenda of defeating the Democratic president. The rhetoric used to court them was shameful. It was xenophobic and bigoted. And as they preyed on fears, they warned of exaggerated threats and apocalyptic catastrophes.

Demagogues on talk radio and TV fueled the anger, big money played its part in funding and organizing this base into an electoral force. 

Because the nation's congressional districts had been "gerrymandered" into largely solid Republican and Democratic districts, Tea Party types not only turned out to support like-minded candidates, they also ran and won seats on their own. It was at this point that the creature that had been fueled and funded by the Republican establishment turned on its creator taking on a life of its own.

The establishment hadn't counted on this outcome. They wanted to use the Tea Party as leverage to win for themselves.  But in the last two elections, Tea Party candidates defeated more mainstream Republicans and now threaten to defeat even more Republicans who do not fully embrace their Manichean, absolutist, and apocalyptic world view.  

One outcome of the recent debacle in Washington has been the realization of some in the Republican establishment who now see the need to take on and defeat their creation. They can challenge the organizations and their champions. But unless they find a way to effectively and compassionately address the root causes and the deeper psychological disorders of those whom they once exploited, the anger will remain as will the current dysfunction that has infected our political system.







     

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More Current Affairs

Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "