The other day I came across this article which makes the claim that America is now more divided politically than it is than it ever has been, and that political divisions now outweigh racial and religious divisions in American society. Although I do see clear signs of political segregation every day (it’s difficult for me to claim, for example, that I have a large number of friends who disagree with me politically- I live in New York), I am skeptical of the fact that these political divisions might now outweigh deep-seated racial divides in America. But that’s not strictly the point of this post. Rather, I would like to address the fact that this and other studies of political polarization ignore the shifting meanings of liberal and conservative in America over the past 30 years.
Several other studies seem to confirm my suspicions that these divisions are chiefly driven by the rightward shift of the Republican Party and other conservatives. We see a small but vocal number of Republicans embracing or at least espousing the hard-right ideals of Ayn Rand. Such beliefs would have been unthinkable in serious politics in the 70s. Can this be chalked up purely to the fact that the right-wing has become more right-wing? Unlikely. I would argue that, at least in regard to economic and fiscal issues, Americans, left or right, have drifted to the right.
In 1969, Nixon famously embodied the economic spirit of the times by declaring “we are all Keynesians now.” This was an era where Republican Presidents like Eisenhower spearheaded massive public works programs (such as the interstate system), levied 92% upper income tax rates and railed against the military-industrial complex. We can’t forget that programs such as the Department of Environment Protection and OSHA were set up by Nixon. Economists now considered unabashedly liberal, such as Paul Samuelson, Arthur Okun and Robert Solow were considered centrist technocrats perfectly suitable to advise politicians of both parties. As mentioned in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, income inequality was considered a blight, inherently anti-American, and was kept low through policies that most voters saw as necessary.
By 2001, economist Larry Summers, equally embodying the spirit of his time, declared “we are all Friedmanites now.” By the end of Clinton’s terms in office, financial, communications and transportation markets had all been deregulated. The top tier tax rate had been reduced to 35%. Many of the Great Society reforms had been gutted. Labor unions were a bare shell of what they once were. Income inequality went from being unmentionable because it was anti-American to being unmentionable because denying it was anti-American. Much of the national welfare system had been peeled back, having been replaced with workfare programs by that great liberal leader, Clinton.
Many would argue that these economic reforms “worked.” Yes, they did increase economic growth after the malaise of the 70s. How could they not? All of a sudden, there were new markets investors could pour money into. The removal of regulations in financial markets allowed for the development of new financial instruments, opening up whole new markets which didn’t exist before. All of this would naturally lead to economic growth. But accompanying this economic growth was a consistent rise in productivity accompanied by no gains in the real wage, a meteoric rise in income inequality, and a persistent over-financialization of the economy which now means that the well-being of the average American is held hostage by the whims of financial markets.
We see egghead academics and liberal NPR columnists discussing these issues in the news every day, but when figures like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz bring them up, they’re labelled as shrill, unrealistic nerds. When politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders raise these issues on the floor, they’re accused of trying to turn America into France. Fringe though they may be, no one seems to question Rand Paul or Paul Ryan’s commitment to America in the same way, and the ability of the Tea Party to hold mainstream Republicans hostage cannot be replicated by the handful of Northeastern social democrats peppered throughout both houses of Congress.
All of these facts raise some questions: how polarized are we really? Is polarization really a concern if we’re all concentrated around an increasingly narrow political mainstream in which political leanings are basically defined by ones views on a handful of social issues?
I thought I could summarize my thoughts on this topic in a few paragraph, but it’s looking like this post will have to be continued.