Saturday, August 6, 2011

Why the Tea Party, and Congressional Gridlock, are not a Surprise to the Social Scientist

The rise of angry, polarized debate in Congress, and in the country, is disturbing to most of us, who would prefer that our government just “work” and get things done, rather than bring our economy and the nation to a political standstill. However, for the social scientist, this is not unexpected in our current socio-economic climate. Two patterns are evident: first, the growing strength of anti-government social movements since the 90s, and second, increased political hostility leading not only to a breakdown in the ability to compromise, but even an inability to agree on facts.

Several patterns coincide that explain both of these trends. First, social movement analysis tells us that every successful movement has a counter-movement. The Tea Party was a predictable response to the profound success of the Obama campaign that appeared to lurch our country to the left. Similarly, the success of the Obama campaign was predicated on not only the previous lurch to the conservative side during the Bush years, but the coincidental crash in the economy, largely perceived to be caused by Bush’s policies. In the U.S. we hate taxes, based on our cultural values of meritocracy and individualism, and tax revolts have long characterized grass-roots movements by the wealthy and middle classes opposition to progressive taxation policies, especially when combined with recessionary trends. The rise of the Tea Party (who are demographically very similar in geography, values, and tactics to the Moral Majority from the 80s) is an unsurprising rejection of the apparent leftward shift, confirming a larger trend, that reactions to acute social shifts tend to keep our general trajectory fairly centrist.

Understanding this requires only that we remind ourselves that these “lurches” are not really lurches at all, but peculiarities of our political structure. To some degree, we have a “winner-take-all” political system, in that whoever wins a district gets 100% control of that particular vote. In the larger picture, there is some degree of power sharing, since both Democrats and Republicans jointly share responsibility for legislating and voting. However, each individual seat is responsible only to that one district, most of which have been gerrymandered into security. Still, most elections are won by a relatively small margin, in the 50-60% ranges. The winner-take-all system gives us “red states” and “blue states” with the appearance that everybody in those regions is on board for conservative or liberal policies. However, this is far from the case, when many “victories” are only confirmed with legal challenges that accept or reject a few contested ballots. When such victories are only won by politically-driven redistricting, and legal battles, the only thing that is clear is that our culture has a variety of strongly held opinions and not a convergence in one direction. Back to social movement theory: the rise of the Tea Party is a predictable response to the intersection of the success of Obama’s campaign to mobilize the youth vote, giving the appearance of a lurch to the left, combined with the economic crash of 2008 and skyrocketing unemployment. The critical explanatory fact is that the “lurch” was not a “real” lurch at all since U.S. culture and values haven’t dramatically changed—what changed was simply the temporary power structure due to a very successful campaign during a presidential cycle where there was widespread dissatisfaction with Washington.

The Tea Party itself is simply a political lurch in the other direction, but this time for different reasons. Namely, off-cycle elections are dominated by the extremes of both parties, where neither youth nor minorities vote, so conservatives typically have the advantage. In this case, barely 1/3 of eligible voters bothered to show up to vote. Of the Tea Party national-level victories, there was an average win-margin of 54% (i.e., 46% voted for the other candidate), and only 33% of Tea Party candidates won the states where they ran (i.e, 66% of TP candidates lost) --meaning, one could arguably make the case that the current Tea Party freshmen were elected by about 5% of eligible voters. This clearly does not represent a radical swing towards conservatism, just an artifact of a semi-winner-take-all system.

However, none of this answers the larger question of congressional gridlock and the extreme political animosity. This, also, is unsurprising to the social scientist, and it hinges on a fairly extraordinary statistic: the correlation between GINI and the House Polarization Index since 1947 is +0.91 (Table 1 at the top of the page). This requires some elaboration. First, social science rarely has correlations above 0.8—there is simply so much diversity between cultures and individual people that we are happy with a correlation above +0.6. In this case, +0.91 is astonishing. GINI is a standard measure of income inequality. In simple terms, it measures the gap between the wealthy and the poor—the higher the GINI, the more extreme is the socio-economic inequality. Not only is social inequality higher in the U.S. than we have ever seen since WWII, but the U.S. has the highest GINI of all industrialized countries, and the top decile share of income is greater than during the Great Depression. The House Polarization Index is essentially a measure of the gap between how parties vote in the House. Large values represent very little agreement between the parties, while small measures represent a large degree of commonality and cross-party voting. What the correlation means is that the income inequality measure, and political polarization, track almost perfectly—as income inequality goes down, polarization goes down, and as income inequality goes up, political polarization goes up. Both indices have been steadily increasing since the political turmoil in the late 1960s and the great economic crash of the early 1970s, from which our “real wages” have never quite recovered for the bottom 60% of earners (wages accounting for cost of living). The inequality itself can be explained by a number of factors, such as the long-term consequences of racial segregation and discrimination from the early post-WWII era; the change in our economy from manufacturing-based to service and finance-based; and perhaps even a loss of a sense of national shared sacrifice, so that rather than affirming the importance of social investment and helping the needy, we instead institutionalize individualism and a form of modern aristocracy.

Empirically, the data speaks for itself, and builds on work previously done by Habermas, when he explores the concept of the “legitimation crisis.” This is the third piece of this larger socio-political puzzle. Specifically, Habermas describes the processes of antagonism and ambivalence that characterize contemporary civil society. Ambivalence refers to the pattern whereby families and communities withdraw into themselves, and away from politics. We see this in many forms, such as a rise in leisure activities, personal spending, family vacations, religious isolationism, and a decrease in general civic engagement, when people become disillusioned with their government. One of the most dramatic expressions of civic ambivalence is the radical retreat from voting, as seen above, when only a third of the population bothered to participate in a national election. The other effect, antagonism, is expressed by anti-government, or “smaller government” social movements, and the Tea Party is a less extreme version of this trend. More extreme versions are seen in anti-government militia groups, which have grown since the 60s, as well as anti-government religious movements, like that seen most recently by the Warren Jeffs-led, FLDS clan. Both of these effects are what Habermas calls the “legitimation crisis”—when the people feel like government has failed them, specifically as it relates to a pummeled economy. This ties back to a radical shift in cultural belief about the economy after the great depression, as formulated by Keynes. Prior to the depression, most of us believed that the economic cycle (the ups and downs) were “natural” therefore unable to be fixed or broken by government intervention. However, after the depression, we were ready for a change of belief, and Keynes provided us the tools to make the change, by creating a new theory that allowed capitalist governments to inject money into the economy. True or false, the belief that the government could fix or break the economy took hold, and provides the basis for our widespread cultural rejection of political parties that are in power when the economy tanks—i.e., a legitimation crisis.

So do these ideas explain the recent battle in congress that led not only to gridlock, but which subsequently led to a downgrade in the U.S. credit by S&P? The good social scientist is loathe to claim that something as complex as U.S. socio-politico-economic phenomenon can be explained by just a few variables. However, these three ideas combine to provide a foundation for understanding recent trends, whether it is the apparent lurches left and right, or the intense political animosity. If it is reasonable to look at the intersection of these three ideas as a partial explanation, do they point us in the direction of any solutions? Yes, but none that seem politically viable in the current climate. First, if part of the problem of “lurches” is the winner-take-all system, where the representatives feel secure in taking extreme positions (and perhaps even insecure in *not* taking extreme positions), then a rethinking of redistricting is in order. Creating political boundaries that increase diversity, rather than political security, while far from beneficial for either party, is what is best for the U.S. citizens. Perhaps an even more radical solution, would shifting from a winner-takes-all plurality-based system to one of proportionate representation, as is already done in a number of politically-successful democracies. Second, campaign finance reform is also in order. Political scientists report that elections can be predicted 90% of the time by who raises the most money. Not only that, but since 2000, the amount of money it costs to beat a house incumbent has skyrocketed from about $500 thousand, to $2 million, and the average net worth of a House representative is $800 thousand, while the average citizen’s net worth is about $95 thousand. These differences make it clear that in politics, wealth provides a huge advantage to those who have it, and a huge barrier to those who do not. These patterns tend to exclude the voices who are not in the top quarter of wealthy U.S. families, and thus fail to adequately represent the majority of citizens. Restructuring campaign finance to limit private financing in favor of equalized public financing would help ameliorate some of these problems.

Third, and perhaps most intractable, is that it seems we must refocus on what U.S. citizens seem to fear most—stronger redistributionist policies that reinforce both infrastructure and safety net systems. All of the social sciences arrive at the same conclusion, that social inequality breeds greater social tension, declining economic growth, and hindered democracy. As Habermas explains, and as data supports, as the economy declines, so does our trust in government. What makes this especially problematic, is that it is exactly when the economy hits a crisis point that we have to pull together into national unity, which ultimately has to mean greater individual sacrifice for the good of the whole. Where infrastructure crumbles, so business crumbles. Where the poor are unhealthy, business loses productive workers. When children cannot get a good education, business gets a workforce that cannot do its job, and we lose a generation of potential innovators. All of this feeds back into an untrusting, unproductive society where everything grinds to a halt. Instead of believing that helping the poor is an act of helping society (and therefore ultimately ourselves and our community), we have instead convinced ourselves that helping the poor fosters laziness, increasing the population of characters that we see on Jerry Springer and reality television. When the unemployment and poverty skyrocket, as we have been seeing, our instincts are to withdraw and fight for the little we have left. However, this Hobbesian vision of the social contract seems to leave us only with a social structure that is left without any ability to lubricate the wheels of social cohesion and productivity, instead of drawing on a Lockean vision, where human cooperativity and shared sacrifice is what builds a strong society.

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