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James Zogby

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The Roots of Our Political Dysfunction

Posted: 10/19/2013 10:58 am

Political commentators have been working overtime trying to explain why and how American politics have become the dysfunctional mess the world saw on display in recent weeks.

The question, as it has been framed, is: how could a minority of hard-line extremists generate enough fear that they were able to paralyze their party's leadership forcing the government to shut down and bringing the nation to the brink of default?

The answers have varied, with fingers being pointed in several directions. High on the list of culprits have been: the role played by "big money" in distorting our political process; the fact that congressional districts have become so "gerrymandered" that elections for the House of Representatives are no longer competitive between the two parties; and the degree to which ideologically-based media has poisoned our political discourse. Also receiving mention are: the Tea Party and the influence of other powerful influence groups; the lack of comity between the parties in Congress; and everyone's new favorite target -- the demagoguery of Senator Ted Cruz.

These observations are correct, but only to a point. Many of the items identified are, in fact, problems. But they are either mere symptoms of the deeper disease that has distorted our political culture, or they are the "enablers" that have facilitated the growth and spread of the disease.

The root causes of our current disorders are maladies that run deep, embedded in our nation's psyche. There is the residual aftershock from 9/11. There is the continuing trauma from the economic crisis of 2008/2009. There are the anxieties experienced by those who have recoiled in the face of rapidly changing social and sexual mores. And then there's the matter of race.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 that took the lives of 3,000 innocents, ended the decade of relative peace and prosperity that had defined the post-Cold War Clinton era. Although we had defeated the Soviets and had emerged as the world's sole super-power, in an instant, our sense of security collapsed and we were reminded of our vulnerability.

Sitting glued to our televisions, we didn't just watch the drama unfold, we personally experienced the horror and tragedy and claimed it as our own. The residual impact of all this is not unlike a collective post-traumatic shock syndrome. Many still retain a sense of vulnerability and anger, and are prone to or susceptible to exaggeration, elevating even minor menaces into existential threats.

This sense of "being on the edge" was compounded by the economic collapse of 2008 -- which hit the country like a punch in the gut. Stock values plummeted, taking a huge bite out of pension funds; one in five homeowners feared mortgage foreclosure; unemployment doubled; and for many faced with growing economic insecurity the "American Dream" died. Banks and auto companies were bailed out, but middle class Americans who had worked hard and played by the rules were forced to bear the brunt of the collapse.


The election of 2008 played out against this backdrop. In this contest, two themes emerged, both reflecting different reactions to the crisis. For his part, Barack Obama sought to generate a sense of hope and optimism, speaking "to the angels of our better selves." On the other hand, his opponents, principally Sarah Palin, preyed on the insecurity and resentment, using ridicule, anger and fear.

This continued, after the election, taking on the added dimension of xenophobia combined with racism, as the opponents of new President discovered that they could whip up crowds to a frenzy by questioning whether Barack Obama was a Muslim or whether he was even born American.

There are those who still argue that the Tea Party was a reaction to growing budget deficits or the fear of government control and "death panels" that would come with what was called "Obamacare." While these were, in fact, the issues raised by the Tea Party, they were not its cause. A review of polling data, or just a casual glance at the attendees and signs carried at Tea Party rallies, establishes that this was largely a movement of angry and insecure middle-aged, middle class, white people. To this group's fear that the American Dream had ended, was now added the not so subtle resentment that a young, smart African American male was sitting in the White House.

Add to this the dramatic changes occurring in contemporary social and sexual mores, which gave birth to the so-called "values voters" movement, and you have the brew which has spawned our current political disorder.

The world view of this group, that became the base of what we call the Tea Party, reflected the traumas that brought them into existence. It is, in a word, infantile. It is Manichean and absolutist -- seeing the world in black and white. And it is apocalyptic -- seeing it necessary to destroy so that a "new order" can come into being. Dangers are everywhere. In their world, purity is a requirement and compromise and negotiations are evil.

One must be sympathetic, to a degree, because these folks are hurting. Their insecurity is real and their anger, though misdirected, can, to some extent, be justified. But the danger they represent cannot be understated or dismissed.

They were exploited by some in the Republican establishment who believed they could simply use the anger of this constituency as fodder to advance the agenda of defeating the Democratic president. The rhetoric used to court them was shameful. It was xenophobic and bigoted. And as they preyed on fears, they warned of exaggerated threats and apocalyptic catastrophes.
Demagogues on talk radio and TV fueled the anger, big money played its part in funding and organizing this base into an electoral force.

Because the nation's congressional districts had been "gerrymandered" into largely solid Republican and Democratic districts, Tea Party types not only turned out to support like-minded candidates, they also ran and won seats on their own. It was at this point that the creature that had been fueled and funded by the Republican establishment turned on its creator taking on a life of its own.

The establishment hadn't counted on this outcome. They wanted to use the Tea Party as leverage to win for themselves. But in the last two elections, Tea Party candidates defeated more mainstream Republicans and now threaten to defeat even more Republicans who do not fully embrace their Manichean, absolutist and apocalyptic world view.

One outcome of the recent debacle in Washington has been the realization of some in the Republican establishment who now see the need to take on and defeat their creation. They can challenge the organizations and their champions. But unless they find a way to effectively and compassionately address the root causes and the deeper psychological disorders of those whom they once exploited, the anger will remain as will the current dysfunction that has infected our political system.

 
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