The Public Eye: Polarization Politics: So Far, So Good

By Bob Burnett
Friday October 01, 2010 - 11:47:00 AM

It’s a familiar joke: A man falls off a forty-story building; as he passes the twentieth floor, a friend yells out the window, “How’s it going?” and the faller screams, “So far, so good!” Now it’s become the Republican campaign theme. 

The United States is in freefall. The economy is stagnant, shedding good jobs. We’ve lost our edge in the global marketplace. The middle class is getting squeezed out, as the rich get richer and the poor poorer. We’re stuck in an endless war in Afghanistan. Horrific problems, such as global climate change, are ignored. Millions of voters believe the good ship America has lost her way. 

Meanwhile Republicans play blame games. Stoke the fires of polarization. Chant: “So far, so good. Let’s shut down the government.” 

As the US heads into a critical midterm election, the US electorate is more polarized than at any time since the Vietnam War. And Republicans view this as an accomplishment rather than as a problem. 

Attitudes about healthcare reform typify our political division. The latest Kaiser Foundation Tracking Poll indicates that while support for the bill is increasing – 49 percent of respondents now have a favorable opinion of it versus 40 percent unfavorable – the opposition has become more entrenched. 26 per cent feel the bill should be repealed “as soon as possible.” (A Fox News poll shows that 44 percent favor repealing.) 

There’s a hardcore conservative minority that opposes everything the Obama Administration proposes: economic stimulus, action to spur employment, tax increases for billionaires, campaign finance reform, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” cap and trade legislation to limit emissions, and on and on. They don’t have any substantive counter proposals; they’re united by hatred of Barack Obama. 

Recently, the GOP released their Pledge to America. If these were not such serious times, the document might be dismissed as political humor, a parody of 1994’s Republican Contract with America. Pledge is best understood as a baroque overture to the Tea Party movement that has its own Contract from America.  

These conservative manifestos share three components: First, the belief that power has to be returned to the states, that much of what goes on in Washington is unconstitutional. (Conservatives believe that, because of the tenth amendment to the Constitution, many Federal laws are unconstitutional because they usurp power from states – the so-called Tenther movement.) The second component is the desire to reign in government spending and cut taxes – although there are few serious proposals on how to do this other than defunding health care. And finally, conservatives propose to solve the energy crisis by removing all barriers to exploration of domestic reserves and operation of US power plants – regardless of the environmental consequences or the fact that this won’t solve the problem. 

Neither the Pledge to America nor the Contract from America consider the United States’ most pressing problems, how to: guarantee good jobs for working Americans, end the war in Afghanistan, ameliorate global climate change, and reduce the role of moneyed interests in American politics. These are “So far, so good” plans that ignore America’s real problems and instead appeal to nativism.  

Given that the conservative manifestos are not solutions oriented – they’re rants – why are polarization politics working? Why does the enthusiasm gap favor conservatives? 

An obvious answer is that it’s easier to be against something rather than for it, particularly in the middle of a depression. Rank-and-file conservatives who were outraged by the election of Barack Obama have seized upon difficult economic times as an excuse to rail against all things Democratic. 

But there are two other culprits. Every problem is someone’s opportunity. And America’s problems have presented conservative media with a terrific opportunity to expand their base. As Barack Obama’s numbers have fallen, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh’s have risen. 

But let’s not forget the free-market capitalists, the power elite who were the real base of the George W. Bush era. Conservative powerbrokers like the Koch brothers have seized on inchoate populist anger, molded it into the Tea Party movement, and harnessed it for their avaricious purposes.  

There are unusually high stakes in the November 2nd midterm election. It’s about more than which Party will control the Senate and the House of Representatives, which Party will be seen as having momentum going into the 2012 Presidential election. 

Conservatives want to shut down the Federal Government. Republican Senator Jim DeMint brags that his objective is paralyze the Senate in “complete gridlock.” 

Their plan seems to be working. The United States is in freefall and the radical Republican response is, “So far, so good. We want the government to crash.” 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at