The latest news from Washington is that there is a compromise in the making that would allow the government to raise the debt limit. But even if an eleventh hour agreement is reached tonight, it is clear to everybody that there will be more budget battles to fight in the months to come. As I wrote in a previous blog, our political elites are deeply divided among themselves and unable to reach a lasting compromise. The likelihood of a catastrophic default, sooner or later, is still very high.
The proximate reason for the current political crisis is an unbridgeable ideological divide. Each side (especially the Tea Party and the Democrats, with traditional Republicans caught in between) has drawn a line in the sand that it is unwilling to cross.
The ideological conflict has been “sacralized,” to use the terminology of Scott Atran. Killing ‘Obamacare’ has become a sacred value for the Tea Partiers, while preserving it is an equally sacred value for Obama and the Democrats. As Scott’s research shows, once a dividing issue has been sacralized, a compromise is very difficult and sometimes impossible.
But why have ideological differences been allowed to become so deep and so resistant to compromise? After all, the same basic tension between conservatives and liberals has been a constant feature of the American political landscape for at least a century, if not more. Yet during the 1950s and 1960s ideological differences were not allowed to get in the way of running the government. What has changed?
One observation that I and others (for example, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal) have noted is that political fragmentation waned and waxed together with economic inequality. Some popular press accounts of my views treat inequality as the cause of political instability (for example, in an otherwise excellent commentary by Dave Ross on CBS). However, this is not quite right. Inequality is a symptom, not the root cause. Yes, inequality harms cooperation and breeds conflict, but there is a deeper, more fundamental process that drives up both inequality and instability. This factor is intraelite competition, resulting from elite overproduction – too many aspirants for too few power positions.
Consider two facts. First, between 1983 and 2007 the number of American ‘decamillionaires’ (individuals with personal wealth exceeding $10 million) increased from 60 thousand to 460 thousand (that’s a five-fold increase in proportion to the total population!). Many of these newly wealthy people turned their attention to the political arena – either running as candidates themselves, or supporting others.
Second, between 1975 and 2011 the number of lawyers tripled from 400 thousand to 1.2 million (more than doubling in proportion to population). The law degree has always been and still remains the main route to political office in the United States. So the number of potential candidates for political offices increased manifold.
But the supply of offices themselves stayed flat. There are still 100 US senators and 435 US representatives today – same numbers as in 1970. When there are many more candidates vying for a limited number of positions, competition heats up, efforts (and methods) to defeat the opposition become increasingly desperate, and ‘us-versus-them’ mentality sets in.
Note that ‘us-versus-them’ does not need to refer just to Republicans-versus-Democrats. It might as well be true conservatives versus RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).
I am not saying that ideology is used purely cynically by politicians trying to get ahead in the game. For some this may be true, but the majority is clearly quite sincere in their convictions. The question is why politicians today are driven to extreme ideological positions and have lost their ability to compromise.
(As an aside, this is a non-political blog and usually I avoid singling out one or the other political party as being ‘right,’ but in this case it is clear to any disinterested observer that the radical, extremist element in the current crisis is largely, if not entirely, the far political right. This is supported by the quantitative research of McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal, who showed that since the 1960s the Democrats remained pretty much in the same position on the liberal-conservative spectrum, while the Republicans have moved far to the right.)
Intraelite competition also helps us to understand some of the particular aspects of the current political situation. As I said above, what’s different today is that there are huge numbers of potential donors and an equally large pool of potential candidates – desperate law school graduates earning $50K per year, which is not enough to repay their Law School loans (I will have to devote another blog to tracing out how this stratum of desperate elite aspirants emerged). Such conditions make it very easy for unscrupulous political organizations, focused solely on their narrow agendas, to threaten sitting members of the Congress that they would run a well-funded challenger against any wavering congressman in the primaries, should they ‘cave’. Do I need name any names?
For those readers who are interested in the sources of the data I use in this blog, take a look at the (rough) draft of my book on structural-demographic analysis of American history, posted on my web site. The book manuscript also explains other aspects of structural-demographic dynamics, such as why the number of elite aspirants exploded between 1980 and now.