The divide in U.S. politics

It was a moment when reality met reality TV.

On stage in Tampa, Fla., a slate of Republican presidential candidates, including physician Ron Paul. Facing them, an audience scenting blood.

CNN host Wolf Blitzer’s question du jour: whether a 30-year-old man who was in a coma, but wilfully carrying no health insurance, should be given intensive care to save his life.

“That’s what freedom is all about,” said Paul. “Taking your own risks.”

“But congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?”

A pause, loud cheers and cries of “yeeeeah!”

That stark scene is a snapshot of the division that has opened in American politics in the 21st century. A gap that has become wider as the 2012 presidential election approaches.

It is between those who believe government holds the solution to the economic and social crises the country is facing, and those who are convinced it is the problem.

To the latter — a contradictory coalition of billionaires, struggling small-business people and middle-class folk who feel betrayed by government bailouts — salvation lies in individual sweat and private enterprise. The smaller the role of government, the greater the opportunity for success.

To the former, it’s the social contract: giving government the authority to create jobs in time of crisis; to provide a social safety net for the most precariously placed citizens, along with schools, roads, public transport, clean water, hospitals, parks, recreation and cultural institutions. At a price that is shared equitably in return.

In a nutshell, says former Clinton labour secretary Robert Reich, it’s “social Darwinism” versus public good.

The Republican Party, he blogs, is increasingly dominated by those who are “not conservatives. They’re regressives. And the America they seek is the one we had in the Gilded Age of the 19th century.”

Social Darwinism, he points out, springs from the quill of 1880s Yale professor William Graham Sumner, who believed America was in a pitched battle between “liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest,” and “not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favours all its best members; the latter carries society downward and favours all its worst members.”

It’s a sentiment Grover Norquist could agree with. The czar of American anti-tax lobbyists, he created the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which commits elected politicians and candidates to oppose and vote against all tax hikes — or risk a weasel alert.

The 25-year-old pledge has morphed from a crumb on America’s fruitcake fringe to the plum in the centre of the political pudding. At latest count, some 1,300 current Republican state legislators and all but 13 of the party’s 289 federal senators and congress members have signed it.

Its opponents hold it responsible for last summer’s debt-ceiling debacle that left the country on the brink of default because politicians’ locked-in positions left so little wiggle room for negotiation. A deadlock that eventually lead to a disastrous downgrade in the U.S. credit rating.

To Norquist and his posse, it’s the price of honesty and accountability in government. And who could stand up against that?

“We have this debate, not about what government should do but who it should do it for,” he says from his Washington office at Americans for Tax Reform, with a grin you can hear over the phone.

“I think I should steal money from Fred and give it to me. But not that somebody should steal money from me and give it to Fred. The real fight is over the spoils.”

In Nortopia, liberty reigns supreme. Government spending would shrink by half within 25 years. Business, trade and guns would roam freely and pesky laws and regulations that hamper them would disappear.

“Step one is to get government out of the business of job creation,” he says; imposing rules like federal minimum wages is a “boot on the throat” of the entrepreneurs who create the Real Jobs.

“It’s become a crime to work for $7 an hour. If the government wasn’t doing so many goofy things we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Republican candidate Newt Gingrich goes back to the future even further. Not only the wage but the age restrictions should go. Why not let poor kids “learn how to work” by taking over unionized janitor jobs in New York public schools? In fact, Gingrich handily calculated at a South Carolina Republican debate, “you could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the (same) price.”

Gingrich has made clear that his “work ethic” policies leave no child behind. “It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods,” he told a Harvard audience earlier. “Entrapping children in . . . child laws which are truly stupid.”

Outside the beltway , at the Roosevelt Institute in midtown Manhattan, it’s arguments like these that set teeth on edge.

Here, the bible is President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, patched together during the dark years of the Great Depression to supply relief for the poor, recovery of the economy and reform of the financial system. But, in the not-so-great recession years, its lustre has dimmed.

“What we’ve seen since the 1980s is a steady move away from the philosophy of the New Deal,” says Roosevelt senior fellow David Woolner. “The Reagan years were a turning point. There was a move away from regulation of the economy, and increase of the financial sector — banking and finance — coupled with a fundamental redistribution of wealth similar to the 1920s.”

The result being?

“Wage rates have declined. Much of the economic growth was fuelled by debt, and that is how Americans sustained themselves. There was a housing bubble and it finally collapsed.”

The parallels with the 1920s are painful. But they’re made worse by the failure of government to share the pain among the top as well as the middle and lower layers of society. The squeeze on Middle America brought an outpouring of anger from Tea Party revelers on the right, and Occupy protesters on the left. Nobody was happy with the government’s response.

Unlike FDR, Woolner says, President Barack Obama “missed some golden opportunities” to capture the momentum of the day. “He wanted to be a conciliator and bring people together. But in this polarized atmosphere, appeals to reason and bipartisanship didn’t work.”

Roosevelt, by contrast, wasted no time firing the first shot of an offensive against his political enemies, labelling them unambiguously “the malefactors of great wealth.”

“He placed himself as president on the side of the working people,” says Woolner. “The American public got a strong sense that government was working for them.”

No longer. And the split between the true believers in the beneficial role of government, or government-that-might-be, and the drown-it-in-the-bathtub skeptics could hardly be wider as the electoral juggernaut rolls across America.

While Roosevelt’s “malefactors” have good reason to want government shrunk, if not drowned in the bathtub (as Norquist denies he said, but it’s D.C. urban legend anyway) the stance of the grassroots folk in the Tea Party movement is more puzzling.

“It’s a paradox,” says Thomas Frank, author of Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.

“Here’s a movement that seems community-minded. They’re saying ‘let’s all come together.’ But what are they coming together for? To celebrate the survival of the fittest!”

Or, the survival of the fattest.

“If you look at the Tea Party’s favourite book, Atlas Shrugged, it’s about the strongest people exerting their will-to-power over everybody else, and at the end of the day the strong will crush the weak,” says Frank. “And it’s not just the Tea Party. The Republicans in Congress talk of it all the time. The strong crushing the weak — and forever.”

And the real head-scratcher: “people who count themselves supporters of the conservative comeback imagine that they are opposing Wall Street. But their leaders, all of them, have sworn to deregulate it. That’s how you’re going to get back at Wall Street?”

Part of the problem may be that non-conservatives are getting it wrong about their opponents, says Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at New York University and author ofThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

“It would be wrong to call all conservatives social Darwinists,” he says. “Liberals think if you’re opposed to having the government protect people you want to leave individuals on their own. But conservatives favour a minimal role for government in mid-level institutions. Government needs to be the referee, but it shouldn’t be a partner in your economic affairs.”

Because many in the Tea Party movement sprang from the ranks of small business and the self-employed, they are more easily convinced that government, rather than the private enterprise system with which they strongly identify, is responsible. Especially when they see themselves as victims of government robbery for the benefit of irresponsible financiers as well as the “undeserving poor.”

But Haidt, who has studied the psychology of liberalism and conservatism extensively, agrees the current Republican Party has gone off the moral rails of traditional conservatism.

“The Republican Party is not representative of true conservative values. It’s abhorrent. It’s become a hybrid party, and (the dominant force) is the libertarian, pro-business wing. It’s a huge problem in America right now. Both parties have been corrupted by the giant interests who give them money.”

While the Tea Party put its finger on the throbbing pulse of public anger in America, its opposite number, the Occupy movement, went deeper, to the inequality at the heart of the economic system, the 99 versus the 1 per cent.

Although the tent-pitching protesters were in the minority, their message went viral.

A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that two-thirds of Americans now believe there is a serious conflict between rich and poor — the “class warfare” that the Republican right has blamed on “socialists” conspiring to throw the country under Big Brother’s bus.

“The gap between rich and poor has widened in most OECD countries over the past 30 years,” says a recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. “This occurred when countries were going through a sustained period of economic growth, before the Great Recession.”

America has fared worse than the social democratic countries of northern Europe, economists say, because it has lowered taxes on the wealthiest at a time of prosperity and failed to expand investment in public services, labour and family support programs. The prospect of raising them is — so far — radioactive in the 2012 campaign.

“Other than war and a few transfer programs, government programs are being asphyxiated,” says economist Jeffrey Sachs in the Financial Times. “Republicans claim that America’s low taxes and small government have spared it from the European disease. That claim is utterly false. The U.S. is vastly outperformed by the high tax-and-spend countries . . . Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.”

Inequality is more than doing the math, economists say. It’s the biggest threat to the mobility that creates the American dream — which ended in a rude awakening as the income gap widened.

“If everyone has a fair chance in life, inequality doesn’t matter so much,” says OECD economist Wen-Hao Chen. “If that is missing it gives rise to social unrest.”

So, what is to be done?

The Republicans who have seized the agenda in Congress, and hope to take the White House in November, insist the best hope for economic recovery is letting the private sector do what it does best — create jobs and raise all boats on a tide of prosperity. They decry opposing views as a full frontal attack on capitalism.

Although Republican candidates have piled on to front-runner Mitt Romney for his back story running the wildly profitable private equity firm Bain Capital, and his blooper, “I like to fire people,” there’s little blue sky between them on issues like labour laws and government regulation.

Nor are Democrats rushing to speak out against corporate might, when they, like the rest of the political system, have become so dependent on corporate money.

Few are willing to raise their hands for the social contract that New Dealers forged in the last great economic crisis: that government is responsible for the welfare of all of society. But that could change, as voters realize that Obama’s recent efforts to recall it are gaining more enthusiasm from ordinary people than politicians.

“While Republicans attack a supposed ‘entitlement culture,’ Mr. Obama is calling for strengthening a desperately needed social safety net,” says the New York Times. And Obama’s flagging popularity has begun to rise as he talks about narrowing the equality gap.

The electoral battle lines are drawn. The troops — and their media and financial backers — are mustering. Some believe it is America’s own take-no-prisoners clash of civilizations.

“That is what’s at stake,” says Norquist. “It’s the control of government, and the direction it’ll be moving in. If Obama is president it will move very hard left.”

“There has been a very effective campaign of fear,” says Woolner. “People are convinced government is trying to take away their rights by doing things like making them buy health care. But functioning government is not something we should be afraid of.”

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