by Douglas E. Schoen
On all sides of the political spectrum the talk is of how our party political system is out of control, busted, corrosive; highly detrimental to our democratic process. One side says black, the other automatically, unthinkingly says white; one says sugar the other right away says shite! It’s time to knock it off guys and quit being a**holes. With Congress’ poll ratings at an all time low ‘We, The People’ can obviously see where the problem lies. Is there such a disregard for the electorate that our representatives don’t feel any need (certainly no duty) to rectify this breakdown in belief and trust? Because even these fools must see we’re headed for the pit some time soon.
In Hopelessly Divided, one of the world’s preeminent political analysts, Doug Schoen, provides a fresh, compelling analysis of a hidden crisis in American politics – a crisis that is rarely discussed, yet explains much of the dysfunctionality and dissatisfaction that we see every day.
This will be the first book to analyze the stranglehold that the Political Class has on American democracy and why, because of its influence, it is systematically undermining American democracy – throwing the legitimacy of our entire system into question. It is a hard-headed assessment of the growing divide between the Political Class and the mainstream and what this means for American democracy.
Schoen defines the Political Class as the American meritocratic elite: a small group of influencers from business, government, academia, and media who occupy the most prestigious institutional positions in American society. Put simply, the Political Class – political leaders, business elites, and those in the information and technology vanguard – have explicitly come to function on their own behalf. They’ve put ordinary mainstream Americans in a subsidiary, indeed inferior, position.
By the Mainstream he means, in effect, virtually everyone else: ordinary people from across the political spectrum – left, right, and center who work hard and play by the rules. Virtually all of these people earn less than $75,000 a year. They, on average, do not have elite college educations, and largely feel that the game has been rigged against them.
A majority of mainstream Americans reject the policies and practices of what they regard as an out-of-touch ruling elite. Not surprisingly, members of the Political Class disagree with this assessment. They live in their own world, with their own rules, and own beliefs. It’s a world that is totally at variance with the one ordinary mainstream Americans inhabit.
As a result, the Political Class is very happy with how things are going in America, while everyone else suffers, economically and politically. Moreover, mainstream Americans have come to have substantial doubts about the credibility and effectiveness of their institutions, and believe that our overall position in the world is eroding, and that little is being done to keep America from becoming a second-class nation.
Right now, both major parties are viewed unfavorably by the American electorate. The Congressional leadership of both parties are also viewed unfavorably, and the Congress itself as an institution has less than twenty percent support.
And the level of cynicism and anger among mainstream Americans is only growing, as we face an ongoing budget crisis, a stuttering economy, a dysfunctional health care system, and three wars for which we lack a clear and overarching strategy.
Much analysis has been focused on the rampant partisanship in American politics today, but that partisanship has been able to grow because there is no broad consensus in America as to how to solve our problems. The two extremes have gotten stronger and stronger as the Political Class has consolidated its position.
The partisanship we see every day is a reflection of the underlying breakdown of our system and the divide between our leaders and those that they govern. The story goes well beyond the left/right divide. The American people don’t want to be governed by the left, or the right, or even by the center – they want to be governed by themselves, with institutions that reflect their values, and with leaders who are responsive to their concerns.
To be sure, the public has splintered ideologically. Those on the right want to dramatically reduce the size and scope of government, while those on the left want bigger government, more stimulus, and higher taxes on the wealthy.
But regardless of ideology, mainstream Americans believe the system no longer works on their behalf, that the American dream no longer is a reality for them and their families, and that their institutions – those that they were brought up to cherish – have largely failed them and their fellow citizens.
Over the past two years, much of the focus of this dissatisfaction centered on Occupy Wall Street on the left and the Tea Party movement on the righ – and what their rise means for the future of American politics. Despite their fundamental ideological differences, both movements grew out of deep-seated frustration and dissatisfaction with politics-as-usual and the way Washington operates. And indeed, they are only a reflection of a larger phenomenon. The broader discontent and anger evident among mainstream Americans who share similarly cynical attitudes toward Washington leaders and institutions is a phenomena that continues to play itself out in American political life on a daily basis.
For the last several years, the American people have withstood one blow after another: a financial crisis, a housing and foreclosure crisis, an unemployment rate far higher than we’ve seen in generations, stagnating middle-class incomes, and a general sense of declining quality of life and diminished prospects for the future. Substantial percentages of Americans tell pollsters they’ve lost faith in the American Dream. The nation faces a genuinely frightening debt profile, a federal deficit at record highs, states and municipalities near bankruptcy, and no real sense that job recovery is in sight in the near or even distant future.
It’s the most difficult time I can remember in this country, and it’s made worse by the prevailing sense that our political leaders in Washington, both Republican and Democrat, have no solutions for it. One might even conclude, from watching their endless partisan squabbling and failure to come to compromises on these monumental issues, that they feel it might not be in their interest to find answers – as if the system they’ve set up, painful as it has become for everyone else, is serving them rather nicely, thank you very much.
And the political elite either has tuned out ordinary mainstream Americans or come up with schemes to manipulate them in a variety of ways. The elite help politicians of the right and left raise huge war chests for campaigns, support massive lobbying campaigns for special interests, and more frequently, deploy huge amounts of secret campaign funds independently to protect their interests. Moreover, they cater to an increasingly polarized electorate with blatant appeals to the political extremes. They create, facilitate, and maintain electoral rules that play to these extremes.
The result is an unsustainable system that perpetuates a self-selecting, self-satisfied elite, and increasingly alienates a restive and frustrated electorate that substitutes ideology for thought, anger for judgment, and alienation for commitment.
Something has to give, and soon.