The Progressive Paradox

Psychological studies show that people naturally resist change, largely because change is disruptive, increasing uncertainty and the risk of loss. Resisting change is a manifestation of our survival instincts. This individual psychology is reflected at the societal level: all societies naturally favor time-tested traditions that have helped them survive through evolutionary development. This means the natural bias of any society favors the stasis of the status quo.

Thus, we have the Progressive Paradox: the constant need to push against the natural conservative tendency of a free democratic society. Like Sisyphus, progressives must constantly push against the boulder of institutional inertia in an uphill battle. Then, whenever they take a brief respite, the boulder rolls back down to erase most of their gains. It becomes a frantic race against time and the expenditure of energy.

Article on Substack

Article on Medium

Debate? What Debate?

I can’t imagine a more sophomoric attempt at moderating a Presidential primary debate than what occurred last night under the direction of CNBC. Apparently there was no clear winner as much as an overwhelmingly clear loser: CNBC. One wonders when the media elites will address the real challenges and issues the American polity faces. I won’t hold my breath.

The last fiscally responsible adult we had in public service in Washington was Paul Volcker, and he was a Democrat. And elites wonder why the average American is fed up with national politics. Kudos to Cruz.

David Stockman eviscerates the pathetic performance in his blog reposted below:

The Fed’s elephantine $4.5 trillion balance sheet represents the greatest fiscal fraud ever conceived.

The fact is, the monetary madness in the Eccles Building is destroying free market capitalism by systematically and massively falsifying the prices of financial assets, and fueling a relentless, debilitating accumulation of debt throughout the warp and woof of the American economy and the rest of the world; and it’s simultaneously extinguishing political democracy by deeply subsidizing our crushing $19 trillion national debt.

Yet not one of three moderators during the entire two hour period asked a question about the elephant in the room.

The Debate: GOP Candidates Elevated, CNBC Eviscerated

by  • October 29, 2015

Well now. We actually got our money’s worth last night.

Almost with out exception the GOP candidates conveyed a compelling message that the state is not our savior, while the CNBC moderators spent the night fumbling with fantasy football and inanities about which vitamin supplements Ben Carson has used or endorsed.

But this was about more than tone. The interaction between the candidates and the CNBC moderators revealed the yawning gap between the bubble world at the intersection of Washington and Wall Street and the hard scrabble reality of economic stagnation and political alienation on main street America.

Yes, the CNBC moderators engaged in a deplorable display of gotcha journalism punctuated by a snarky self-righteousness that was downright offensive. John Harwood is surely secretly on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee and it was more than obvious why Becky Quick excels at serving tea to blathering old fools like Warren Buffett.

So they deserved the Cruz missile that came flying at them mid-way through the debate.

At that point the Senator from Texas had had enough, especially from Carl Quintanilla. The latter has spend years on CNBC commentating about the “market”, but wouldn’t know honest capitalism is if slapped him upside the head, and has apparently never meet a Washington intervention that he didn’t cheer on as something to help the stock averages go higher:

Let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match. And if you look at the questions—Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math?… Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about substantive issues?”

Nor did the Texas Senator let up:

“Carl, I’m not finished yet. The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every thought and question from the media was ‘Which of you is more handsome and wise?”

As one pundit put it afterwards, “given the grievous injuries inflicted on Team CNBC”  by Cruz and the rest of the candidates, the only thing left to do was “to shoot the wounded”.

Actually, there is rather more. Last night was billed as a debate on domestic issues and the economy and CNBC is the communications medium of record about the daily comings and goings of the US economy and the financial markets at its center. Yet not one of three moderators during the entire two hour period asked a question about the elephant in the room.

They had to bring in from the sidelines the intrepid Rick Santelli to even get the Federal Reserve on the table. Its almost as if the CNBC commentators work on the set of the Truman Show and have no clue that it’s all make believe.

In the alternative, call this condition Bubble Blindness. It’s a contagious ideological disease that afflicts the entire corridor from Wall Street to Washington, and CNBC is the infected host that propagates it.

The fact is, the monetary madness in the Eccles Building is destroying free market capitalism by systematically and massively falsifying the prices of financial assets, and fueling a relentless, debilitating accumulation of debt throughout the warp and woof of the American economy and the rest of the world; and it’s simultaneously extinguishing political democracy by deeply subsidizing our crushing $19 trillion national debt.

The GOP politicians appropriately sputtered last night about the bipartisan beltway scam rammed through the House yesterday by Johnny Lawnchair, but they were given no opportunity by their clueless moderators to explore exactly why this kind of taxpayer betrayal happens over and over.

Well, there is a simple answer. The Fed’s elephantine $4.5 trillion balance sheet represents the greatest fiscal fraud ever conceived. Last year it paid the Treasury approximately $100 billion in absolutely phony profits scalped from its massive trove of Treasury debt and quasi-government GSE paper.

That is, over time Uncle Sam has purchased $4.5 trillion worth of real economic resources——in the form of goods, services, salaries and transfer payments——from the US economy, which were paid for with IOUs. These obligations to be redeemed in equivalent goods and services were eventually purchased by the Fed, but with merely fiat credits it conjured out of thin air.

And then the monetary charlatans behind the curtain at the Fed send back to the US treasury the coupons earned on these airballs, causing the politicians to think the national debt is no problem; and that they can buy aircraft carriers and GS-15 salaries indefinitely while booking a “profit” on their borrowings.

Folks, this is just plain madness. Back 1989 when the real median household income first hit its current level of about $54,000, this entire monetization scam would have been considered beyond the pale by even the inhabitants of the Eccles Building, and most certainly by everyone else in Washington——from the US Treasury to the Congressional budget committees to the summer interns in the Rayburn Building.

But after 25 years of central bank induced financialization of the US economy, there has developed a cult of the stock market and a Wall Street regime of relentless financial gambling in the guise of “investment”. Consequently, the massive aritificial inflation of financial asset values is not even recognized by CNBC and its fellow travelers in the main stream financial press—to say nothing of the gleeful punters who inhabit the casino.

But here’s the thing. How did the real median household income stagnant at $54,000 while the real value of the S&P 500 soared by nearly 4X? market cap of US debt and equity issues soared from 200% to 540% of GDP, and now weigh in a $93 trillion?

Real Median Household Income Vs. Inflation Adjusted S&P 500 - Click to enlarge

Likewise, how did the aggregate “market cap” of US debt and business equity soar from 200% to 540% of GDP when main street living standards were not rising at all? Could it be that something rotten and deformed has been injected into the very financial bloodstream of American capitalism—-something which the CNBC cheerleaders dare not acknowledge or even allow conservative politicians to explore in a public forum?

Total Marketable Securities and GDP - Click to enlarge

Worse still, this entire Fed-driven regime of Bubble Finance has inculcated in the casino and its media megaphones the insidious notion that the arms and agencies of government exist for one purpose above all others. Namely, to do “whatever it takes” to keep the bubble inflated and the stock market averages rising—–preferably every single day the market is open.

There was no more dramatic demonstration of that proposition than after the Wall Street meltdown in September 2008 when the as yet un-house broken GOP had had the courage to vote down TARP.

But when they were dragged back into the House chambers by Goldman Sachs and its plenipotentiaries in the US Treasury, the message was unmistakable. On one side of the CNBC screen was the House electronic voting board and on the other side was the second-by-second path of the S&P 500.  And delivering the voice-over narrative were the same clowns who could not even mention the Fed last night. The US Congress not dare to vote down TARP again, they fulminated.

It obviously didn’t. Yet right then and there the conservative opposition was broken, and the present statist regime of Bubble Finance was off to the races.

During the coming decade the nation will be battered and shattered by a monumental fiscal crisis and the bankruptcy of the bogus “trust funds” which now pay out upwards of $2 trillion per year to 70 million citizens. At length, the bearers of pitchforks and torches descending on Washington will surely ask how this all happened.

But they will not need to look much beyond last night’s debate for the answers. The nation’s fiscal process has been literally shutdown by the Fed and the Wall Street gamblers and media cheerleaders who insouciantly and relentlessly demand of Washington that it do “whatever it takes” to keep the bubble inflated.

As a result, we have had the absurdity of 82 months of ZIRP and a orgy of public debt monetization that has driven the weighted average cost of the Federal debt to a mere 1.75%.  And when a few courageous remnants of fiscal sanity like Senators Cruz and Rand Paul have had the courage to resist still another increase in the public debt ceiling, they have been treated as pariahs by Wall Street and the kind of snarky financial media types on display last night.

The fact is, the President has clear constitutional powers to prioritize spending in the absence of an increase in the debt ceiling. That is, he can pay the interest on the debt, keep the Veterans hospitals open, send out the social security checks and prioritize any other category of spending that he chooses from the current inflow of tax revenues, and for as long as it takes to legislate an honest fiscal retrenchment.

Needless to say, that would create howls of pain from the Federal vendors who wouldn’t get paid, the state and local governments which would have to wait for their grant payments and the Federal employees who would be put on furlough.

But that is not the reason that Mitch McConnell and Johnny Lawnchair have capitulated every time a debt ceiling crisis has reached the boiling point. That kind of action-forcing circumstance was managed by Washington innumerable times in the pre-Bubble Finance world, including upwards of a dozen times during my time in the Reagan White House.

But back then no one thought that Wall Street would have a hissy fit if the government shutdown for a few days or if the fiscal gravy train was temporarily put on hold; nor did politicians much care if it did.

My goodness. Paul Volcker had taught Wall Street a thing or two about the requisites of financial discipline in any event.

No, what is different now is that the establishment GOP politicians are petrified of a stock market collapse, and have been brow-beaten into the false belief that a government shutdown will create severe political costs.

Baloney. Even the totally botched affair in October 2013 created no lasting damage—-as attested to by the GOP sweep in the 2014 elections.

At the end of the day, all the hyperventilation about the political costs of a government shutdown or the forced prioritization of spending in the absence of a debt ceiling increase is pure Wall Street propaganda; and its an untruth amplified and repeated endlessly, loudly and often hysterically by its financial media handmaidens.

At least last night some GOP politicians gave it back to them good and hard.

Maybe there is some hope for release from the destructive pall of Bubble Finance, after all.

Gerrymandering Our Demise


The graphic above is an historically famous newspaper illustration of the first application of redistricting based upon choosing voters likely to vote for one party over the other, thereby assuring the election of a favored candidate. The map is of Massachusetts’ counties in 1812 and how they were cobbled together by redistricting to elect congressional candidates favored by Governor Elbridge Gerry. Newspaper wags thought the result looked like a salamander and dubbed the creature a “gerrymander.”

A recent exchange I had with a Political Science colleague over some electoral studies we’ve conducted separately illuminated for me how redistricting, or gerrymandering, is contributing greatly to our national political polarization and governing dysfunction.

After the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 I became quite curious about the red state-blue state narrative promoted by the media to explain the election results. The narrative keyed on subcultural stereotypes across America that served to define political preferences. Most of us are familiar with such stereotypes (guns and religion vs. Priuses and lattes), but it struck me then that the differences had to be  more correlated with geography than cultural identity. After all, red-blue was a geographic pattern, so it had to incorporate a geographic explanation. I conducted an empirical study of those elections that compared county voting with county census demographics. The results revealed that the most significant factors determining party preferences were population density and household formation. Other census characteristics–such as race, gender, age, income–added no explanatory power. (In 2005, I published an op-ed explanation here.)

To bring us up to date, I read another study last week (titled, The 2014 House Elections: Political Analysis and The Enduring Importance of Demographics) that analyzed the 2008, -10, -12, -14 elections in the same manner, comparing census demographic data with congressional district results. The author found that the two most important factors were population density and race/ethnicity of minority vs. white voters. At first I wondered why our results differed, as I suspected nothing much had changed in the electorate beyond a presidential candidate who was the first African American in US history. After some discussions I realized the differences between counties and Congressional districts (CDs) is because county lines, like state lines, are not redrawn to influence electoral outcomes while CDs are deliberately redrawn to favor those outcomes.

Below are some examples of tortuously drawn CDs that are intended to bind racial and ethnic communities together to elect racial and ethnic representatives in a white majority nation.

Worst GerryMandered districts

It didn’t take long to figure out that the difference between the results of the two studies can be traced to the unit of analysis: counties vs. congressional districts. Counties reflect a cross-section of lifestyle preferences based upon geography and demographics versus congressional districts that are carved out to achieve a desired electoral outcome based solely on race or ethnicity.

Underlying this policy objective is the assumption that only a racial or ethnic minority candidate can adequately represent a racial or ethnic community. We can debate whether this assumption holds true or not, but the unfortunate result is that gerrymandering reinforces the bias. In other words, if we’re looking for racial bias and then organize our electoral system to reinforce racial and ethnic divisions, is it any wonder that we then find a correlation between race and political outcomes?

There are other pernicious effects of redistricting along racial and ethnic demographics. First, it reduces electoral competition, and this works equally well for both parties. As non-whites get carved out of white districts, the remaining districts are more purely white. In effect, we are sectioning our electorate into white and non-white political entities. This goes against our long-running public battle to integrate communities, but reducing electoral competition also means parties and candidates can become less responsive to voters’ demands and not suffer for it. This translates into democratic governance that is anything but “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Second, democracy is founded on the process of compromise, but how does a political group defined by biological identity compromise? It becomes impossible to compromise one’s racial, ethnic or sexual identity, so we get much less compromise on issues that go beyond biology. This inability to compromise has greatly hampered our democratic governance. We have basically yielded our politics to a class of elites who are highly motivated to secure and wield power and wealth in their favor: the 99% governed by the 1%.

Taken in total, regardless of the political benefits, what gerrymandering and redistricting has done is weaken our commitment to one of the founding tenets of the American experiment, expressed in the Latin words, e pluribus unum: Out of One, Many.

Instead we’ve allowed ourselves to  become too easily divided and conquered.



The Politics of Polarization


I watched an interesting debate aired by PBS over political polarization in American politics. The debate actually focused solely on the partisan/ideological divide as it pitted “right against left” in its panels and choice of participants. You can view the debate here.

I found some truths and falsehoods presented on this issue. First, I would agree with George Will that partisan opposition is fundamental to the design of the US electoral and governing system. We have two parties so that issues can be reduced to simple dichotomous choices where the choice that prevails can be said to represent a majority of the nation’s citizens and thereby claim a mandate, whether that be weak or strong. Polarization today is evenly matched in a 50-50 nation, which makes elections highly contentious and volatile. It also makes it hard to claim a mandate, and rightly so.

The left-liberal argument seems to be that electoral polarization causes government dysfunction, but this is exactly the purpose: to challenge one side’s view of “good” government by forcing majorities and supermajorities in elections and governance. One discussant claimed that gridlock did not express the “will of the people” because of large scale disenfranchisement of minority groups. Whether disenfranchisement is salient or not, this is not what the data show to be driving polarization. In fact, if one controls for race, for instance measuring only white people, we find the same polarization patterns exist.

Matt Kibbe argues that the system is experiencing upheaval due to information technology that opens the political process in many ways that challenge the old guard. In other words, the political and media elites no longer control the show and are understandably upset with their loss of hegemony. This paints our political dysfunction as an insider-outsider, populist-elite conflict that has tilted toward the outsiders. I’m not sure it has, beyond informing the outsiders just how outside the process they are. The apparent result has been widespread dissatisfaction with the governing status quo, but that doesn’t drive polarization as much as blame-gaming.

But the debate focused on the narrow ideological differences between left and right, whereas most of the polity does not adopt pure ideological or partisan identities. The fastest growing group of voters identify as independent and non-affiliated. So, we are still left with the question of what is driving polarization and we need to answer that question before we have a chance of understanding it. One problem is that the proffered answers usually support one’s political agenda rather than truth.

One need only to look at the correct maps of election results to understand that polarization exists and it is largely a geographic phenomenon. 2004countymap-final2The Red State-Blue State narrative is not quite accurate as the real divide is obviously urban-rural, as illustrated by county election maps. This is confirmed with robust statistical results from recent presidential elections. As one moves from the urban core to the rural periphery, the share of the vote by county moves monotonically from Democrat to Republican. This fact has given rise to those bizarre and amusing subcultural characteristics of opposing voting groups: Republicans own guns, go to church, drive pick-up trucks, and listen to country western, while Democrats drink lattes at Starbucks, drive hybrids, and listen to rap and hip hop. There’s some truth to these stereotypes that feed our amusement, but these lifestyle choices do not drive political preferences, they coincide with political preferences. There’s a big difference, because when identity drives politics, there is little room for compromise.

This coincidence has become salient because both parties have tailored their party platforms to appeal to rural or urban voters. In other words, the parties have created political identities, not voters. We can observe the reality in the suburbs, where cultural caricatures are harder to apply. The true divisions in American politics these days are pretty much the same as those divisions that have existed over the past two hundred plus years: rural regions have different policy preferences than urban, metropolitan regions. The data show that these preferences also correlate with household and family formation, specifically marriage vs. singles and single heads of household. Population density of the county along with the share of married and female heads of households explains roughly two-thirds of party voting preferences in elections today. These differences in preferences have existed in societies throughout history and across countries, so they don’t present any different challenge to our democracy today. The real problem lies in the final third of the explanation for polarization, which is ideology or political philosophy.

Unfortunately, this conflict is usually misrepresented by self-interested parties. So the real challenge we face are the myths promoted by those elites who study and propagandize politics. This would include both parties, the political class, and most of the mainstream media elites. It would also include self-interested parties that exert great influence over the funding of politics, such as major corporations, the banking system, and public unions. This PBS debate exposes the tendency of experts to perpetuate these myths for reasons best known to them.

Mr. Will is correct that the driving force of the polarization we speak of today is ideology over the proper role of government in democratic society. I would have to say that the burden of proof on this rests with the pro-government advocates on the left, as the status quo ante for the US has been limited government that is constitutionally proscribed. The burden of small government proponents has been to meet the demands of democratic society without shifting the sphere of private life to the public sector. One cannot merely say such demands are illegitimate because legitimacy is a function of what a democratic polity demands within the constraints of constitutionalism. If voters demand economic security, the task is to help meet that demand in the most efficient and just manner possible, which usually doesn’t mean creating another universal entitlement program. An old Chinese proverb illustrates this perfectly: better to teach a hungry man to fish than give him a fish to eat.

Eric Liu seems to understand this, though he also appears too willing to fall back on the default of government-driven solutions by expanding public goods. Instead of really addressing the issue Mr. Will presents, the opposing discussants resort to claiming the question of bigger or smaller government is a false dichotomy. Intellectually, perhaps, but practically it seems to be the simple dichotomy that our political system was designed to distill and resolve. The petty and personal nature of our political conflict is merely a manifestation of this inability to reconcile these opposing positions. Personally, I am convinced it can be done, but it starts with understanding the true nature of our politics that puts to the test many of the belief systems we hold so dear.

Red-faced or Blue-blooded: Exploding the Myths of American Party Politics

States apart copy

I’m reprinting this here because in the ten years I’ve been studying and researching this political dysfunction, it only gets worse. And I rarely read or hear any rational analysis – only one-sided arguments. The media has really misguided America because they write narratives and don’t study hard data.

Red-faced or Blue-blooded: Exploding the Myths of American Party Politics

In recent years American politics has become highly polarized, making democratic governance less amenable to compromise and more gridlocked. After a generation of conflict and heightened partisanship during the Obama presidency, as we careen from budget battles to periodic government shutdowns, we seem no closer to bridging the gap. One reason for this impasse stems from a misunderstanding of our politics driven by a popular media narrative that perpetuates cultural stereotypes, political myths, and partisan hyperbole.

The narrative appears to have emerged during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, when the media colored the states red and blue in their visual props in order to better represent the Electoral College races. This was actually instructive because there was an obvious clustering of red states and blue states: blue in the Northeast, along the coasts and the Great Lakes regions; red in the south and throughout most of the Midwest. The media explanations for such clustering focused on exit poll survey data that was based on voter identities and preferences, including race, ethnicity, gender, age, church attendance, etc. And therein lies the problem: analysis based on identity is going to come up with identity-based answers, yet the very fact that the pattern is geographic (red and blue states) means that a spatial factor has to be at work.

Urban vs. Rural

Of course, media pundits had a ready answer for the geographic state pattern: red states in the South represented a racial bias while those in the Midwest demonstrated a fundamentalist Christian bias. Thenceforth, the narrative of party polarization in American politics settled on the cultural and personal attributes of voters, claiming that party affiliations and voting patterns were being driven by race, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, and lifestyle preferences, such as the type of car one drove or the music one listened to. Closer inspection of the hard data, however, exposes the fallacy of this narrative.

If one looks at a more accurate map that breaks down voting patterns into smaller units, of counties or Congressional districts, a more nuanced geographic pattern reveals itself. Blue voters are shown to be concentrated in urban areas, while red voters dominate rural areas. The suburbs represent the swing voters or the purplish middle ground, with inner suburbs voting more blue and outer exurbs more red.

The advantage of county voting data is that we can compare it with county census data on race, ethnicity, age, gender, income, household formation, population, etc. Comparative statistical analysis then shows which of these factors most accurately explains voting patterns. What we find is that the most significant factors are the population density of the community and the number of married households vs. female heads of household. All other factors turn out to be relatively insignificant, including, surprisingly, race.

One might ask, “How can that be? We know that there’s a racial divide where blacks predominantly vote Democratic and whites vote Republican.” (Actually, that’s only half true; whites are much more evenly split.) Certainly race had an impact on the 2008 election, but the novelty of voting for the first non-white president was less of a motivating factor in 2012. Exit polls do show that black voters vote Democratic by overwhelming margins, but the fact that they live in urban areas and have a high correlation with Female Heads of Household (.8 in the 2000 census) means that these two other factors trump their racial identity.

If we take black voters out of the analysis completely, and thus remove any racial bias, we find the same results are even stronger among the non-black population: urbanites mostly vote blue, rural residents mostly red, while suburbanites are mixed. Married households lean red and single households lean blue.

There is a self-selection process that reinforces these results because single voters tend to live in large cities and married couples choose to move out of the city into suburban and rural communities in order to raise families. These two factors—population density and family formation—help explain the majority of these red-blue voting patterns. (We’ll address a third factor when we get to ideology and religion.)

Rural–urban splits in American politics are nothing new and are driven by a natural divergence of economic interests. The first regional party divide was between Hamiltonian Federalists (cities in the North and East) and Jeffersonian Democrats (farming interests across the South and near West). The next battle, over the Second National Bank of the U.S, pitted Jacksonian Democrats against the Whigs. Then, of course, we had the Civil War between North and South over slavery and tariffs. This was followed by another split over banking as McKinley Republicans fought against the Bryan Democrats over gold and silver-backed money. (The 1896 Electoral College map looks almost identical to that of 2004, but with reversed colors: the South and Midwest favored the Democrats, while the Northeast and coasts went Republican.)

Parties and Media

This begs the next question: “Why do certain regions now vote Democrat or Republican so consistently instead of mixing their ideological preferences?” The fixed pattern is an outgrowth of the two party platforms that were set in the 1950s and 60s, when Democrats began to appeal to urban voters with Great Society social programs and identity-group politics, while Republicans targeted rural and suburban voters with lower taxes and family-oriented policies. Consider the fact that the South was once solidly Democrat and is now solidly Republican. The agrarian South has been consistently traditional and conservative; it’s the parties that have flipped, not the voters. The parties have organized their platforms and campaigns to appeal to constituencies based on geography. And by pursuing these electoral strategies, the parties have become ideologically more pure, reinforcing the natural policy divide.

Recent Red-Blue patterns have become hardened for two additional reasons that stem from party and media incentives. First, both parties benefit from a polarization myth based on identity. Why? Because if voters identify strongly as either Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, their votes are virtually guaranteed and party candidates don’t need to spend campaign funds trying to win them over. This is why presidential candidates don’t bother to campaign in solidly red or blue states, but focus all their energies on swing states. (More pernicious is the fact that national Democrat candidates can pay lip service to the minority vote and suffer no real consequence, while Republicans have chosen to essentially write off minority voters.)

The second reason that Red-Blue patterns have come to be reinforced lies with the media. Mainstream media is centered in metropolitan areas and must appeal to these audiences or go out of business. Their reporters live in the same urban communities where they work, so their worldview is largely colored according to urban interests. These facts do not necessarily imply a deliberate political bias, but since mainstream media’s audiences have been heavily politicized (liberals read the big city papers and watch the three major urban networks), its coverage of politics has tended to exhibit a strong leftward, or urban, bias. As a consequence, alternative media has expanded to meet the preferences of non-urban audiences with a rightward bias. These media biases reinforce polarization in a vicious feedback cycle as people only tune in to the news that confirms their political views. For these two reasons—party and media incentives—we can’t expect that political polarization will be reduced by either of these institutions.

We need to understand that voting patterns are correlated with lifestyles because geography is also associated with lifestyle choices. But lifestyle choices do not determine political identities. This is an important insight that many of our national politicians consistently misread. We saw it when Barack Obama claimed that small town folks “cling to guns or religion” because they are “bitter” about their economic “frustrations.” On the Republican side, we witnessed a similar gaffe when Mitt Romney claimed that the 47% of Americans who “don’t pay income taxes…[and] were dependent on government” would always vote for the party promising them more benefits paid for by taxes on someone else. Both of these statements are gross caricatures of our political culture.

Religion and Ideology

This brings us to the last issue that colors our political divide: the thorny question of religious faith and practice. The proxy for religious faith, which is difficult to measure, is frequency of church attendance. Residents of red states go to church more frequently than residents of blue states. Thus, churchgoers are generally thought to represent the ideological Religious Right that votes Republican. This view concludes that religious faith is politically opposed to secularism.

This is not quite accurate, however, and contributes to yet another misreading of our politics and religion. Churches provide different functions within rural and urban communities. In rural areas the church is a communal meeting place where people gather for social purposes as well as to observe their faith. In an urban secular environment, this social need is more likely to be met by reading the Sunday paper at Starbucks.

What frequent church attendance does do is create an organizational structure for political messaging, wherein large numbers of voters can be reached efficiently and effectively. In this sense, churches have played the same role for the Right as industrial unions have played for the Left. Republican political strategists have taken full advantage of the growing evangelical movement as Democrats have suffered the decline of unionization. It is a mistake for the secular Left to confound religious attendance with conservative orthodoxy and attack political opponents for their faith instead of their politics. Religious belief is highly pluralistic in America, meaning there are many faiths and denominations that disagree on almost all aspects of religious doctrine and political preference. Attacking people of religious faith merely unites them in defense of that faith, even when they may not agree on much else.

The most salient split for our politics lies in the ideological differences between orthodox and unorthodox belief. This applies not only to religious belief, but to the secular world as well. Another way to put this is that in our society we have secular fundamentalism as well as religious fundamentalism, and they both influence our ideological preferences. Fundamentalism is defined as strict adherence to orthodox doctrines. We might categorize fundamentalists politically as one-issue voters. So, on the Right, we have cultural conservatives, evangelicals, pro-life, creationist, pro-family groups, while on the Left, we have environmentalists, liberation theologians, pro-choice feminists, and same-sex marriage advocates. Moderates of all stripes are those who occupy the middle ground of our politics. Politically, the focus on ideology becomes too complex to really draw any hard conclusions. For instance, where are the conservationists? Do they side with environmentalists or with traditional naturalists? And where are the libertarians?

The ideological divide has often been characterized as a split between traditionalists and modernists, but I don’t think such a classification fits American politics very well. Instead, I would suggest a different label to describe the majority of Americans who are neither conservative, liberal, nor radical.; They are “tolerant traditionalists,” rooted in the past but willing to embrace change at their own pace. They are bound by faith but amenable to reason. They are not really polarized on the big issues, but they do have different political and policy preferences based on geography, family formation, and ideology. These differences need to be negotiated through democratic politics with the goal of reaching acceptable compromises and creating a more coherent political society—much more cohesive and functional than we have witnessed in recent years.

The real picture: Between 2000 and 2012 not much has changed, only gotten worse…


2004 Election by Congressional District

PurpleAmerica2000small PurpleAmericaVanderbei Election2008 Election2012

Maps are by Robert J. Vanderbei and can be found here.

Why Ideology Matters in American Politics


Political polls in recent years have shown how little citizens approve of U.S. politics, with Congress receiving an approval rating as low as 16%, while the president’s approval-disapproval differential shows a 16-point deficit (41% strongly disapproving vs. 25% strongly approving). Most would agree this reflects a general dissatisfaction with national politics in America.

Ideology has taken the brunt of the blame for this, with the label ‘ideologue’ tossed around like a pejorative. But this would be a popular misconception promoted by the media, as are most of our political myths these days. Ideology is not really the problem, and may be the best solution to our partisan dysfunction.

Ideology, as promoted in the 21st century, is different than that of the 20,th which was defined by the clash of “isms”: principally liberalism vs. fascism, socialism, and communism. There have been other variants of lesser appeal, such as nationalism, collectivism, racism, and linguistic or ethnocentrism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberalization of China, ideological conflict has been decided in favor of liberalism, as manifested through democratic capitalism founded on the moral principles of liberty, equality, and justice.

Political parties use ideology to define themselves under the broadest of terms, but in America our ideologies have always been variations of liberalism. Those other “isms” of the far left and far right have never gained a foothold on our shores. After defeating the more malign extreme ideologies overseas in two world wars, our political parties at home split hairs over progressivism vs. conservatism, as defined by the economic class interests of capital vs. labor.

Sometime around 1968 our two major political parties began to redefine their “ideological identities” to fit those of their targeted voters. In effect, the question of moral principles became liberty, equality and justice: Yes, but for whom? The Democrats focused their efforts on minorities, unionists, feminists, and gays with policies such as affirmative action, welfare, collective bargaining for public unions, women’s and gay rights, while the Republicans focused on religious groups, finance, and business with culture wars, tax cuts, and deregulation.

This has created serious problems for the governance of a pluralist democracy based on constitutional principles. For example, our country’s past was cleaved by racial conflict, inciting a civil war and deeply affecting our politics to this day, a full century and a half later. (Many today mistakenly blame the history of racism for the political divisions we see now between the “red” region of the South and the periphery vs. the “blue” regions of the north and Pacific coast.) The true lesson of the transformation of the South is that the ideology of racism was defeated not by the grievances of the oppressed, but by the moral power of liberty, equality, and justice. White European Americans could not deny the moral justice of emancipation, liberty, and equal rights, as stated in the Constitution, but unrealized for almost two centuries.

Unfortunately, the problem we have today is that we have reverted to this “Southernization” of national politics that pits immutable identities against each other. A political party based on an ideology of identity is little different from one based on skin color. The result has been the fractionalization of national politics into a civil war of self-identified Democrats vs. self-identified Republicans. There is no route to negotiation and compromise under these terms – it’s a zero-sum game of win or lose. This is the nature of elections, but it cannot and has not yielded good governance. In a nutshell, this is why we can’t stand our politics.

Instead, we must return to the true nature of ideology based on ideas rather than identities. These ideas are present in our politics, but, when engaged, quickly revert to imposed identities. Our political discourse should not focus on rich or poor, black, white or brown, straight or gay, but on the moral principles that guide citizens in their personal and social behavior. These moral principles include liberty, equality, security, solidarity, justice, charity, civic responsibility and accountability—not for whom, but for all. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans differ in their emphases on these moral principles, but the larger point is that different ideas can converge on these principles over how society should be governed and ultimately how we govern ourselves. The continuum we need to negotiate travels from libertarianism at one end to statism at the other.

Electoral politics in a democracy is about dividing and conquering the opposition, but ultimately democracy is defined as “government by the people, for the people,” not “by the party, for the party,” or “by the elites, for the elites.” It’s time to redefine our politics according to moral ideology based on first principles. It would be helpful to push public discourse in that direction.