Are The American People Secretly To Blame For Congressional Gridlock? (No, That's Actually Crazy)

08/18/2011 01:18 pm ET | Updated Oct 18, 2011

As I often have the opportunity to remark, our system of governance is broken. And as I remark almost as often, the way this broken system is covered by the media is also broken, and so our understanding of the reasons for the breakage suffers. Pundits are heard to exclaim, "The American people are concerned about the deficit!" But only Beltway pundits are concerned about the deficits. They just like to think they can stand in for the American people. The American people are actually riven with concern over the lack of jobs. Beltway pundits don't know people who lack jobs. The people they do know -- elite politicians -- talk as if they care about jobs sometimes, but they don't work on solving the problem. The media concludes that there's nothing about joblessness to cover.

And so, Congress reaches a "deal" on deficits. The media celebrates it! But public esteem for Congress sinks lower and lower.

"What's going on?" the media wonders. And this past weekend, the New York Times's Sheryl Gay Stolberg offered an explanation: It's all the American people's fault!

If so many people want compromise in Washington, why is compromise so hard to achieve?

The temptation is to blame life inside the Beltway. Politics is, after all, increasingly a blood sport, driven by extremes and special-interest money. Redistricting has left fewer moderates in the Capitol. And the genteel Washington of yore -- where lawmakers and spouses socialized across party lines, sharing cocktails and swapping ideas -- has disappeared, replaced by a culture in which families stay in the district and members jet home each weekend.

Yet a number of political analysts and social scientists say the intransigence has as much to do with Americans outside the capital as lawmakers within it. If Americans want to know why their elected officials can't compromise, these scholars and pundits say, perhaps they ought to look in the mirror.

What follows then is a mishmash of pop-sociology, quasi-mystic poli-sci nerd herfing and microwaved culture war nonsense. It's an amalgam of everything you ever hated about punditry that attempts pointlessly to mystify the political process. At one point, it literally gets into a demographic comparison of Whole Foods shoppers and Cracker Barrel customers, and it sounds so pleasing and fancy until you remember that somehow this was an explanation of why Congress can't compromise at a time when there are multiple, ongoing, unreported financial disasters unfolding across the nation.

Well, happily, Thomas Ferguson offers a very satisfying smackdown to the notion that the American people bear the lion's share of the blame for what's going on in Washington: "Analysts and reporters need to stop looking in mirrors and start scrutinizing data. There is little evidence that Congressional polarization is rooted in sharp differences in public sentiment." He goes on, at length, to cite evidence that demolishes the notion that Congressional gridlock is a product of public polarization as a part of either large demographic shifts or popular "sorting theories."

What's the explanation for the broken system, then? Prepare to not be surprised in the least!

The conclusion has to be that "sorting" was a minor part of all the sound and the fury that came with polarization; it cannot be the Archimedean lever that moved the American political world. That was political money.

Emphasis mine, because: duh. Ferguson continues:

As I recently pointed out in the Financial Times, a tidal wave of political cash that emerged in the 1970s has washed away the remnants of the old seniority system in Congress, drastically changing the way that body operates. In its place, Congress now uses a system of "posted prices" for selecting who serves on committees and assumes leadership positions. Individual members of Congress compete for key slots by raising enormous amounts of money not only for themselves, but for the national congressional and senatorial campaign committees. These are controlled by Congressional party leaders. The leaders' control of these committees, along with the vast fixed investments in research, polling, and media capabilities these committees maintain, gives them more leverage over individual Congressmen and women. It makes crossing party lines far more costly than, for example, in the nineteen fifties.

In dividing so sharply and refusing compromises, Congress is listening primarily to those who contribute political money, not the public.

I'm not one for unified field theories, but I'm even less of a fan of all the pointless mystification that passes for "political analysis." So, if you're wondering why politicians behave the way they do, or why issues of little salience to your life become national obsessions, or why we don't have a public option, or why we're still at war in Afghanistan, or why strong public sentiment against entitlement cuts seem to not register, or -- to be perfectly frank -- why New York State has legalized marriage equality (an outcome I, for one, welcomed), the answer is always, always the same: It's the money, it's the money, it's the money. (h/t: The Monkey Cage)

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