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

Dec 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "This puts US Democrats in a difficult position. What is a political party to do when the other main party has been taken over by self-appointed holy warriors? To treat them as a loyal opposition worthy of engagement in a spirit of compromise and respect becomes almost impossible. Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, and Joe Biden have sometimes been criticized by their own supporters for not fighting dirty and giving Republican fanatics a dose of their own foul medicine.  That would be a mistake. All legal means should be used to stop extremists from wrecking democratic institutions, but those institutions won’t survive if all parties turn politics into a matter of life and death. In a quasi-religious war, the far right will almost certainly win; they have more fanatics and, in the US, many more guns."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "In contrast to the index for consumer goods, which measures only the prices of final products, industrial producer prices capture all intermediate stages of production. They therefore have a certain prognostic significance for consumer prices, even though the final products won’t show such extreme spikes. ----- These new inflation figures are so extreme that the ECB’s position looks like willful denial. Germany is currently experiencing the strongest inflation in a lifetime. And the situation is not much better in other European countries. In September, France reported an 11.6% annual increase in industrial producer prices, and that figure stood at 15.6% in Italy, 18.1% in Finland, 21.4% in the Netherlands, and 23.6% in Spain."
Nov 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "So it could well be that, despite the faster spread of the infection, its ultimate health, social and economic impact proves negligible. We simply do not know at this point. But detecting more uncertainty than before, financial markets have reacted with panic. For example, the S&P500 tumbled 2.3% on Friday November 26 only to rise 1.1% on Monday November 29. Most markets gave up between 2% and 4%, which is a pretty substantial one-day fall."
Nov 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Momentous changes are casting a long shadow on China. The country’s political system will soon undergo a profound reform, pending final approval (a quasi-formality) at next year’s congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). President Xi Jinping, the Party chairman and the “navigator” of the country, has decided on a new course, abandoning the principle of collective leadership. Xi is leading China away from the path taken by Deng Xiaoping after the terror of the Cultural Revolution, and back toward a system of absolute rule by one person without term limits, as under Mao Zedong."
Nov 25th 2021
EXTRACTS: "”The biggest disappointment in Glasgow was the last-minute watering down of the proposed (and widely supported) agreement to “phase out” the use of coal in energy production. With India providing political cover for China in vetoing this language, the final conference proposal was to “phase down” coal”. ---- “China accounts for more than half of the world’s coal consumption, and has the largest amount of coal-fired generating capacity under construction. Pressed about why his country would not do more in Glasgow to help save the planet, China’s chief negotiator pointed to the commitments in the Communist Party of China’s current Five-Year Plan. So, our future now depends on the CPC’s program. The tragedy for the world is that the Party cannot be phased down, much less phased out, despite the fact that it is a huge threat to the future of all of us.” ------ “To save the planet, robust democratic leadership must be phased up – not phased down, let alone phased out. Rather than merely keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best, we should start by calling out the appalling behavior of dictatorships such as China and Russia.”
Nov 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The transitory inflation debate in the United States is over. The upsurge in US inflation has turned into something far worse than the Federal Reserve expected. Perpetually optimistic financial markets are taking this largely in stride. The Fed is widely presumed to have both the wisdom and the firepower to keep underlying inflation in check. That remains to be seen."
Nov 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "S&P projects that companies are planning to install 44 gigawatts of new solar in 2022. The year 2020, despite the onset of the pandemic, saw a record-breaking 19 gigawatts of new solar capacity installed in the U.S. So given the bids out there already, it appears that in 2022 solar installers will more than double their best year ever so far. The U.S. currently has 100 gigawatts of solar electricity-generating capacity, so in just one year we are poised to add nearly 50% of our current total. A gigawatt of power can provide electricity to about 750,000 homes. So the 44 new gigawatts we’ll put in next year have a nameplate capacity that would under ideal conditions allow them to power 33 million homes." ----- "Not only is there a lot of good news on the green energy front but there is good news in the bad news for fossil fuels. S&P finds that coal plants are being retired way before the utilities had expected. Some 29 gigawatts of coal retirements are expected from 2020 through 2025. "
Nov 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Zemmour’s way of thinking stems from a tradition going back to the French Revolution of 1789. Catholic conservatives and right-wing intellectuals, who hated the secular republic that emerged from the revolution, have long fulminated against liberals, cosmopolitans, immigrants, and other enemies of their idea of a society based on ethnic purity, obedience to the church, and family values. They were almost invariably anti-Semitic. When Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of betraying his country in the notorious scandal of the 1890s, they were on the side of Dreyfus’s accusers. ---- Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 gave reactionaries of this kind the chance to form a French puppet-government in Vichy. Zemmour has had kind things to say about the Vichy regime. He also has expressed some doubt about the innocence of Dreyfus. ---- None of these views would be surprising if they came from a far-right agitator like Jean-Marie Le Pen. But Zemmour is the son of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Algeria who lived among the Muslim Berbers."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "performed strongly in last month’s parliamentary and regional elections. Officially, Communist Party candidates took 18.9% of the popular vote for the State Duma (parliament), compared to nearly 49.8% for the Kremlin’s United Russia party. But the Communists refused to recognize the results, insisting that the vote was rigged. And, indeed, some experts estimate that they should have gotten around 30% of the vote, with United Russia taking about 35%."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Powell was charismatic in the true sense of the term. Nowadays, this description is too often used to indicate an ability to attract supporters or generate celebrity interest. Internet lists of those who are regarded as charismatic include characters as varied as Adolf Hitler, Bono, Donald Trump, George Clooney, and Rihanna. But the ancient Greeks and Saint Paul used “charisma” to describe values-based leadership infused with a charm capable of inspiring devotion. The Greeks believed that this quality was a gift of grace, while Christian theology regarded it as a power given by the Holy Spirit."
Oct 17th 2021
EXTRACTS: "But property-sector woes are not the only economic danger China faces in 2021-22. The Chinese government’s mounting crackdown on the country’s burgeoning tech sector may pose an even greater threat." ---- "According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, the share of Chinese urban employment supported by private enterprises more than quadrupled between 1995 and 2018, from just 18% to 87%. The share of exports generated by the private sector more than doubled over the same period, from 34% to 88%. And private-sector fixed-asset investment jumped from 42% to 65% of the total. The message in the data is clear: clamping down on the private sector and threatening innovators is not the way to ensure sustained rapid growth. Chinese entrepreneurs can read the writing on the wall. They understand that their political and regulatory room to maneuver is shrinking, and that the balance has shifted in favor of state-owned firms and public officials. And they understand that this uneasy atmosphere is likely to persist."
Oct 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "We designed a programme that incorporated data from over 300 million buildings and analysed 130 million km² of land – almost the entire land surface area of the planet. This estimated how much energy could be produced from the 0.2 million km² of rooftops present on that land, an area roughly the same size as the UK."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "Britain in the 1950s was wedded to the US, acting as a partner rather than leading the charge. Now, while the UK continues to support the US, the influence it has seems negligible. While it may bring comfort to the UK to feel it is a partner to a superpower, being its stooge or subordinate is an unpleasant place to be, no matter how much you tell yourself it values your opinion."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "That was then. Now, the Chinese government has doubled down, with President Xi Jinping throwing the full force of his power into a “common prosperity” campaign aimed at addressing inequalities of income and wealth. Moreover, the regulatory net has been broadened, not just to ban cryptocurrencies, but also to become an instrument of social engineering, with the government adding e-cigarettes, business drinking, and celebrity fan culture to its ever-lengthening list of bad social habits. All this only compounds the concerns I raised two months ago. The new dual thrust of Chinese policy – redistribution plus re-regulation – strikes at the heart of the market-based “reform and opening up” that have underpinned China’s growth miracle since the days of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It will subdue the entrepreneurial activity that has been so important in powering China’s dynamic private sector, with lasting consequences for the next, innovations-driven, phase of Chinese economic development. Without animal spirits, the case for indigenous innovation is in tatters."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Wartime nostalgia plays an important part in Britain’s instinctive fondness for the special relationship. Like former Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some British politicians might believe that the United Kingdom is the only European country with serious armed forces and the political will to use them. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like Blair before him, seems to fancy himself a modern-day Churchill. Unfortunately (or not), Britain’s military power is insignificant compared to what Churchill could command in 1944. Wartime nostalgia has drawn Britain into several foolish American wars, which other European countries were wise to avoid."
Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
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."