Who’s at fault for this mess? Most feel that Congress is to blame for their economic woes, but many also lay blame at the door of banks and financial institutions. Large corporations and the Bush administration have also been identified as culprits by respondents . Virtually none of the respondents blame themselves or the middle class.
Significant economic dislocations have political consequences. As societies lose their middle class and become more divided by wealth and income, they tend to become more polarized politically. This phenomenon, as measured by growing partisanship, has indeed been a feature of the American political scene in the last decade.
Another Pew report, “Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years” reveals that the level of political polarization in America has increased to record levels. The report states, “the average partisan gap has nearly doubled over this 25 year period, from 10 percentage points in 1987 to 18 percentage points in the new study.”
The link between growing partisanship, political polarization and the declining economic fortunes of the middle class is not accidental. Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal studied the link between income and partisanship in America and found that “polarization of the electorate has increasingly taken place along economic or class lines. Unlike the patterns of the 1950s and 1960s, upper income citizens are more likely to identify with and vote for Republicans than are lower income voters.”
Divisions are largest on issues that affect income redistribution, politics of workplace, social spending and immigration; all bottom line issues that affect the wallet. The reason for these fault lines is simple and ancient: those who have do not want to share with those who don’t.
One of the effects of growing polarization is Congressional gridlock and the perceived ineffectiveness of the federal legislature: growing polarization makes it harder to form political coalitions needed to pass significant legislation at the federal level. And when legislation does pass, it is often heavily partisan, benefitting one segment of society at the expense of others.
This political catatonia can be dangerous when significant policy matters become neglected. Currently the inability of the Congress to act threatens to send the nation over the “fiscal cliff.”