Political Dysfunction Summer Reading

Eric Alterman discusses an underlying cause of our political dysfunction—the mainstream media’s refusal to take sides and dig deeper.

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See also: What Has Happened to the Republican Party?

The book business moves slowly. Our political dysfunction has been obvious for many years, but the topic is only now making its way into the nation’s bookstores in a sustained fashion.

The most prominent, at least in media terms, is the book by the two veteran Congress watchers—the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein—called It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. When an excerpt appeared in The Washington Post, it spent many days at the top of the newspaper’s most-read online list of articles, resulted in more than 5,000 comments, and was tweeted about more than 3,000 times.

Mann and Ornstein argue that, “Acrimony and hyperpartisanship have seeped into every part of the political process … endangering our very system of constitutional democracy …. the conservatives have become ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, and ardently opposed to the established social and economic policy regime [and have] … led Congress—and the United States—to the brink of institutional collapse.”

Above all, they call on the media, as well as the public at large, to focus on the true causes of dysfunction rather than just throwing the bums out every election cycle. As Mann explained to the Columbia Journalism Review:

There is a strong tendency on the part of the mainstream media to avoid taking sides—in other words, to avoid reaching conclusions that put the onus of our dysfunctional politics on one party or another or on one candidate or another. Reporters admirably embody professional norms favoring fairness and nonpartisanship. But too often even the most talented and dedicated reporters, especially in these partisan times with media watchdogs on the constant lookout for bias, retreat to a formulaic “he says/she says” or “both parties are to blame” that imposes a false equivalence on the underlying reality. Reporters don’t want to be charged with partisan bias, and their editors and producers have strong professional and economic incentives to avoid such charges. The safe response is to insist on “balance,” even if the phenomenon is clearly unbalanced. In their quest to be fair and balanced, they misinform and disarm a public trying to fix our dysfunctional politics.

Funnily enough, the part of the book that blamed the media for its construction of false “balance” was the part that the New York Time’s Michael Crowley explained—in an otherwise respectful review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review—might be a problem with no solution. Crowley said:

It’s not clear that journalists can solve the problems they describe, especially as increasing numbers of voters consume partisan “news” that affirms their pre-existing beliefs. Nor is it clear that more nuanced reporting would restrain the powerful passions that have been ignited by America’s long-running economic trauma.

The fact that the problems with partisan news are not being explored—at least in most mainstream news publications, which pride themselves on “balance”—would hardly appear to be a reason to reject their likely success.

Indeed, the views of Mann and Ornstein are echoed from an insider perspective in another book, this one by long-time Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren, called The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted. Here again we hear of a media incapable or unwilling to report honestly on the fact that one side only—the conservative side—is largely responsible for our current political predicament.

Meanwhile, the new book by the Nobel Laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, focuses on the implications of the fact that the top 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, and that moneyed interests stifle true, dynamic capitalism. He argues that the 1 percent have made America the most unequal advanced industrial country, while crippling growth, trampling on the rule of law, and undermining democracy. The result: a divided society that cannot tackle its most pressing problems.

As it happens—and as Mann and Ornstein might put it—it’s even worse than it looks. “Wages aren’t stagnating, they’re plummeting,” say Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project. They continue that:

Median earnings for men in 2009 were lower than they were in the early 1970s. And it gets worse .… Between 1960 and 2009, the share of men working fulltime fell from 83 percent to 66 percent, and the share not making formal wages tripled from 6 percent to 18 percent. When you take all men, not just those working fulltime, into account, we see a fall of 28 percent in median real wages from 1969 to 2009.

Then there’s Martin Gilens’s book, called Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, which is directed exclusively toward an academic audience and concerns itself less with recent political dysfunction than with its economic underpinnings over time. Reflecting on the political implications of some of the disturbing statistics described above, Gilens’s book explores how political inequality in the United States has grown as a function of economic inequality, finding that:

When preferences of low- or middle-income Americans diverge from those of the affluent, there is virtually no relationship between policy outcomes and the desires of less advantaged groups. In contrast, affluent Americans’ preferences exhibit a substantial relationship with policy outcomes whether their preferences are shared by lower-income groups or not.

In his first chapter, Gilens pulls together almost all of the relevant academic research on the topic of money’s influence on the political agenda, and pretty much all of it in recent decades points in the same direction: Too often journalism focuses merely on the outcome of one or another congressional roll-call vote to examine policy outcomes. But, of course, our legislators have countless ways to affect policy absent a public roll call—shaping legislation beforehand and ensuring which bills reach a vote and which do not, among many others.

It is here where—according not only to the author’s research but also to virtually all the research he has collected and summarized—we see the power of the relationship between great wealth and institutionalized (and legal) corruption. To take just one instance, Gilens notes that, “Donations to members of Congress from political action committees, for example, do not appear to influence legislators’ roll-call votes, but they are strongly related to behind-the-scenes activities such as offering amendments during subcommittee markup and negotiating with other legislators.”

This research makes a mockery of the faux-naïve homilies of the majority of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, who pretended in the Citizens United v, Federal Election Commission decision that massive amounts of corporate and wealthy individuals’ money spent on politics and campaigns does not “give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Although the majority of justices say it might result in “influence over or access to elected officials,” the Court ruled that is not the same as “quid pro quo corruption” or bribery. Against all available evidence—to say nothing of common sense—the court simply asserted that, “The people have the ultimate influence over elected officials.”

We know from experience, from our own intelligence, and now from mountains of data that this is nonsense. But, as with other aspects of our political dysfunction, it is enabled by the surface-level, “he said/she said,” on-the-one-hand-ism journalism we see all the time in the mainstream media. For this childish fantasy, we are all—well, roughly 99 percent of us—are paying the price.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

See also: What Has Happened to the Republican Party?

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Eric Alterman

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