Political parties have never been so ideologically divided — and downright nasty about it — since the Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, say two political scientists who study and track political polarization. But both professors, who are connected with UCSD, say that the Republicans and Democrats will temporarily puff on the peace pipe early next year so that the nation doesn’t plunge off the so-called fiscal cliff.
The professors are Gary Jacobson and Keith T. Poole, who is emeritus from UCSD and is now at the University of Georgia.
The nation faces the fiscal cliff at the end of this year unless the warring factions somehow reach a détente, however temporary. Without a compromise, a number of tax increases and deep spending cuts will go into effect next year, hammering the economy. For example, last year’s temporary payroll tax cut would be out the window; workers would then be hit with a 2 percent tax increase. Tax cuts for business would expire. Taxes related to the new healthcare law would begin taking a bite. At the same time, spending slashes that were part of last year’s debt-ceiling deal would go into effect.
Congress’s inability to do anything “would create turmoil in the financial markets and, at worst, a serious recession,” says Jacobson. “More orthodox Republicans are not going to let that happen. They have an economic stake in not going over the cliff. After the election, Congress will kick the can down the road, probably into 2013.” And then the two parties, while continuing their mutual animosity, would be forced to do something.
Today, the so-called Tea Party Republicans have huge sway in their party. Moderate “country club” Republicans don’t have the numbers, notes Jacobson. “But they have the money.” Wall Street will see that a recession would raise havoc and the capital markets could fall into chaos once again, particularly if the nation teetered close to default. “Cooler heads will prevail.” Unlike the Tea Partiers, those cooler heads have the lobbying clout.
Voters of both parties would push Congress, too. If the Republicans won the presidency and got substantial majorities in both houses of Congress, and adopted the budget offered by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan — or one very similar to it — “It would devastate a number of popular programs: Medicare, Medicaid, farm programs, highway building, health research,” says Jacobson. “People in the business community would realize what the consequences would be.” (One of San Diego’s most prosperous industries, biotech, depends on government largesse. If Ryan’s budget led to a compromise that would slash military spending, San Diego could really be hit.)
Jacobson has recently written articles about President Obama and the Tea Party, the electoral origins of legislative gridlock, and the historical background of polarized presidential politics. His work shows partisanship escalating over recent years. Among the most important reasons are the movement of Southern conservatives into the Republican Party after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the big chasm on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
He notes, for example, that voter ticket splitting (voting for a Republican president and Democratic senator, for example) has fallen sharply since 1972 as the ideological and social breaches widened.
Poole coauthored a seminal 2006 book, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches. Income inequality and political partisanship ran on a remarkably similar curve during the days of the robber barons. Then, from 1913 to 1957, income inequality and political partisanship fell in tandem. But, beginning in 1977, as wealth and income disparity soared, so did ideological divisions and legislative stalemates.
There are several reasons for these phenomena: in the 1970s, immigration restrictions loosened. “The foreign born became poorer and poorer relative to the native-born population,” says Poole. But so many of the immigrants do not vote. Increasingly, the people voting were those better off financially. These voters favor middle-class entitlements, such as Medicare and Social Security, “but are less sympathetic to redistribution programs, such as welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid.” Thus, the partisanship has ballooned. In addition, the pouring of bailout money into the financial sector “reinforces the ideological divide.”
There were other factors, such as the South turning Republican. All told, “Moderates of both political parties are being eliminated. The parties are dominated by activists and more intense people,” says Poole.
The next book Poole is coauthoring will come out next year: Political Bubbles. The thesis is that behind every financial crisis is a political bubble: just as financial bubbles are the result of greed, political bubbles are the product of rigid ideologies, ineffective government, and special interests. The result is legislated leniency, regulatory failure, and more risk-taking — reasons the two phenomena run together.
That describes today. In 2007, the richest 1 percent’s share of national income peaked at 23 percent — the same as in — er, uh —1929. When the bubble burst in 2008, the percentage dipped, but it is climbing again. So the gap between the rich and everybody else is exceedingly wide by historical standards — just like the political ideological gap.
So what will happen when America faces the fiscal cliff in late 2012? Like Jacobson, Poole believes that nothing will happen until after the election. “Then they will have to do something about the fiscal cliff,” says Poole. “They will kick the can down the road into March, February, January, and then either President Obama or President Romney will work out a deal with Congress. There is no choice. We are broke.”
Once the nation dodges that fiscal cliff, the political partisanship will escalate again. Hatred and vituperation will dominate politics, just as they have since the 1970s, only probably worse this time. If one party sweeps into the presidency and takes both houses of Congress with a heavy majority, then some nonpartisan, significant legislation might pass, but neither Jacobson nor Poole expects a one-party landslide. ■