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Robert Reich

Three factors that are polarizing the nation

As they have in the past, the nation's prolonged economic problems will realign the major parties, create new coalitions, and yield new solutions

By Guest blogger / November 30, 2011

Gino Orlando, a student from University of California at Merced, carries an American flag as he marches with other students and Occupy San Francisco protesters in the financial district as part of a demonstration. Reich argues that America's economic woes are creating new gulfs between the nation's citizens.

Jeff Chiu/AP/File

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Most political analysis of America’s awful economy focuses on whether it will doom President Obama’s reelection or cause Congress to turn toward one party or the other. These are important questions, but we should really be looking at the deeper problems with which whoever wins in 2012 will have to deal.

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Not to depress you, but our economic troubles are likely to continue for many years — a decade or more. At the current rate of job growth (averaging 90,000 new jobs per month over the last six months), 14 million Americans will remain permanently unemployed. The consensus estimate is that at least 90,000 new jobs are needed just to keep up with the growth of the labor force. Even if we get back to a normal rate of 200,000 new jobs per month, unemployment will stay high for at least ten years. Years of high unemployment will likely result in a vicious cycle, as relatively lower spending by the middle-class further slows job growth.

This, in turn, could make political compromise even more elusive than it is now, as remarkable as that may seem. In past years, politics has been greased by the expectation of better times to come – not only more personal consumption but also upward mobility through good schools, access to college, better jobs, improved infrastructure. It’s been a virtuous cycle: When the economy grows, the wealthy more easily accept a smaller share of the gains because they still came out ahead of where they were before. And everyone more willingly pays taxes to finance public provision because they share in the overall economic gains.

Now the grease is gone. Fully two-thirds of Americans recently polled by the Wall Street Journal say they aren’t confident life for their children’s generation will be better than it’s been for them. The last time our hopes for a better life were dashed so profoundly was during the Great Depression.

But here’s what might be considered the good news. Rather than ushering in an era of political paralysis, the Great Depression of the 1930s changed American politics altogether — realigning the major parties, creating new coalitions, and yielding new solutions. Prolonged economic distress of a decade or more could have the same effect this time around.

What might the new politics look like? The nation is polarizing in three distinct ways, and any or all of could generate new political alignments.

Anti-establishment

A vast gulf separates Tea Party Republicans from the inchoate Wall Street Occupiers. The former disdain government; the latter hate Wall Street and big corporations. The Tea Party is well organized and generously financed; Occupiers are relentlessly disorganized and underfunded. And if the events of the last two weeks are any guide, Occupiers probably won’t be able to literally occupy public areas indefinitely; they’ll have to move from occupying locations to organizing around issues.

But the two overlap in an important way that provides a clue to the first characteristic of the new politics. Both movements are doggedly anti-establishment — distrusting politically powerful and privileged elites and the institutions those elites inhabit.

There’s little difference, after all, between the right’s depiction of a “chablis-drinking, Brie-eating” establishment and the left’s perception of a rich one percent who fly to the Hamptons in private jets.

In political terms, both sides are deeply suspicious of the Federal Reserve and want it to be more transparent and accountable. Both are committed to ending “corporate welfare” — special tax breaks and subsidies for specific industries or companies. And for both, Washington’s original sin was the bailing out of Wall Street.

Mere mention the bailout at any Tea Party meet-in or Occupier teach-in elicits similar jeers. The first expression of Tea Party power was the Utah Tea Party’s rejection of conservative Republican senator Robert Bennett because of his vote for the bailout. At the Republican state convention, which ultimately led to the election of Senator Mike Lee, the crowd repeatedly shouted “TARP! TARP! TARP!” The Occupiers, too, began on Wall Street.

The historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote a famous essay about the recurring strain of, as he put it, a “paranoid style in American politics” — an underlying readiness among average voters to see conspiracies among powerful elites supposedly plotting against them. He noted that the paranoia arises during periods of economic stress.

But the web of interconnections linking Washington and Wall Street over the last decade or so — involving campaign contributions, revolving doors, and secret deals — has been so tight as to suggest that this newer anti-establishment activism is based on at least a kernel of truth.

Isolationist

Economic stresses caused Americans to turn inward during the Great Depression, and we’re seeing the same drift this time around. Republican fulminations against the “cult of multiculturalism” are meeting similar sentiments in traditional Democratic precincts — especially when it comes to undocumented immigrants. Alabama and Arizona have spearheaded especially vicious laws, yet polls show increasing percentages of voters across America objecting to giving the children of illegal immigrants access to state-supported services.