It’s been a month of terrible news and political developments, not the least of which were the SCOTUS decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the passage of extreme abortion restrictions in Texas, and the awful acquittals of George Zimmerman in Florida (who pursued a Black teenager and shot him, killing him) and Ezekiel Gilbert in Texas (who shot and killed a sex worker after she refused to have sex with him). All of this comes on the heels of the Steubenville trial, in which members of an Ohio football team gang-raped a young woman at a party and were convicted as juveniles, meaning they’ll be free after only a few years of light detention. It comes after three years of struggle against conservative forces pushing back gains made by workers unions in the Midwest, after a series of voting restriction laws in more than 20 states, and after a half-dozen high-profile mass shootings around the country—including one that targeted 6-year-olds—that have garnered no new restrictions on gun ownership or registration. To say that America is reeling on its collective heels is something of an understatement.
If we only pay attention to major media outlets, the narrative tells us that there is a huge polarization in the United States today, with warring factions at the extremes waging their battles through reductive and incendiary rhetoric about dead babies, massive government databases, corrupt politicians, gluttonous oligarchs, lazy poor people, insane terrorists, and tone-deaf state employees. It’s almost as if a badly written Hollywood screen play had taken over the nation. In truth, most Americans—according to places like Pew—are centrists, not pushing strenuously one way or the other for a progressive or conservative agenda. But this has occurred at the same time that people aligned with a political party have become more loyal to those parties and their stated values.
Let’s take a step back, and reassess America the Melting Pot. How has a nation of immigrants, one so presumed to be representative of a great diversity of people, values, and opinions, become so dichotomized politically? If that’s what’s actually happened, that is.
Well for one, our political representatives look nothing like a cross-section of the USA:
The narrative about polarization is compelling, it’s filled with drama, and perhaps that’s why it has so stubbornly affixed itself to our consciousness. But it’s also false. It tramples over the actual story of our times—that our long-term indifference to voting has opened a door wide enough for a highway of ideologues to pass through, with a significant number of state and federal political office holders elected who are there only to carry out their principles, not because they have a loving interest in governing. Certainly there are competent and great people in state legislatures and in Congress. And yet there are the retirements that point to ideologic obstinacy as a force of political gridlock. When Barney Frank (D-MA, 4th District) announced his retirement, his statement included:
Our politics has evolved in a way that makes it harder to get anything done at the federal level. I believe that I have been effective as a Member of Congress working inside the process to influence public policy in the ways that I think are important. But I now believe that there is more to be done trying to change things from outside than by working within. I am announcing today my retirement from elected office after 40 years but not my retirement from public policy advocacy and given the nature of our current situation, in some ways I believe I may have more impact speaking, writing and in other ways advocating for the changes that I think are necessary than trying to bring them about inside our constricting political process.
As Mr. Frank and Ms. Snowe point out, actual votes have changed, whether they are for cyclical bills like reauthorizing appropriations, or even simple resolutions that carry no budget component whatsoever. Last summer we were mired in the debt ceiling crisis—entirely manufactured by Congress itself because the Senators refused to vote to increase the ceiling.
Once the White House administration changed parties, the debt ceiling votes lost all Republican support. The debt ceiling issues gets the votes from the party in charge, possibly because they’re the ones spearheading the appropriations process. But holding up the country’s credit to the detriment of the general public only hurt our economic recovery, not the least by which our credit rating is downgraded. And if we look at the debt ceiling crisis—and its drunk uncle, sequestration—in greater context, we see something rather more troubling:
It doesn’t matter how broken the system gets because it doesn’t seem to affect voting.
With voting at record levels for Presidential elections and robust voting for midterm elections, neither party seems to want to move from its stated core values. Even if Newt Gingrich and Marco Rubio were wondering out loud after the 2012 election if the GOP needed to court Hispanic voters better, the House is still putting the stops on the Senate’s version of a comprehensive immigration law. And with 92 percent of Americans saying they’re in favor of background checks on all gun sales, neither political party has made such legislation happen in either chamber, the latest attempt foundering last April. At what point do we question whether “representative” government still exists in the US?
I point out the failure to get any gun control measures passed because it is an extreme example of how the general public’s opinions are currently ignored in lawmaking. But take another hot-button issue: abortion. People who identify as “pro-choice” are at an all-time low of 41 percent, with 45 percent calling themselves “pro-life.” Doesn’t that disprove my hypothesis about representing the public’s wishes? Actually, no. Take a closer look at the opinions in last year’s survey. Only 20 percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal in all cases. Seventy-seven percent of those “pro-life” folks believe in keeping abortion legal, either in all cases or under some circumstances. But the push against abortion that has occurred in state legislatures across the country are working to make abortion as restricted as possible. Why? If these politicians were working to support actual American beliefs, they would be geared much more around ensuring safe access and to minimize the chances of pregnancy. So there must be another explanation for these events.
Looking at recent legislation around the country on abortion rights, voting rights, collective bargaining, gun rights, and self-defense law, there are a few points of similarity. For one, ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council.
More on that in the next post.