Change in US only after political elites go

Business Times - 28 Oct 2011

Change in US only after political elites go

It seems as though the US is experiencing symptoms of a pre-revolutionary political system


SCIENTIFIC methods and techniques of polling a demographically representative sample of public opinion were used for the first time in the 1930s, so we would probably never know how the majority of the French in 1789 or the Russians in 1917 had felt about their respective rulers who ended up being overthrown in two of the modern age's historic revolutions.

But thanks to the most recent polls conducted by a leading opinion research group, we do know that 89 per cent of Americans say they distrust their government to do the right thing and 84 per cent of them believe that their politicians are leading their country in the wrong direction.

Moreover, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 69 per cent of the public thinks that the Republicans who control Congress favour the interests of the rich and two thirds of Americans believe that wealth should be distributed more evenly.

Americans' distrust of their ruling elites has never been so high. It sounds as though the United States may be experiencing the symptoms of a pre-revolutionary political system.

And, indeed, the rise of major populist trends on both sides of the political spectrum - the Tea Party movement on the political right and the more recent Occupy Wall Street protests on the left - reflect the growing American disenchantment with their political system.

Against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1920s and a continuing high rate of unemployment at a time when economic and social inequality has been widening in the country, Americans seem to be coming to the conclusion that they cannot look to Washington to fix their problems.

If anything, the politicians there only seem to be making a bad situation worse, as demonstrated in the ugly spectacle of partisan fighting during the summer over whether to raise the nation's debt limit and the ensuing concerns about America's credit-worthiness.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office issued a report this week confirming what everyone knows, that the top one per cent of earners more than doubled their share of the country's income over the last three decades.

It is not surprising, therefore, that 66 per cent of those polled in the New York Times/CBS News survey believe that money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among Americans, a view shared by the majority of Democrats and Independents and a third of Republicans.

In a way, what seems to bother most Americans has to do with the way the relationship between Washington and Wall Street has evolved since the 1980s in the aftermath of the de-regulation of the financial industry under Ronald Reagan.

With the growing political power of the Wall Street's lobbyists in Washington, the two political parties benefiting from a stream of financial support from the big banks and hedge funds are perceived by both the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers as being in the pockets of the much-reviled 'fat cats'.

The rage of both the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers has been directed against the government's bailout of the too-big-to-fail financial institutions with the two movements calling for breaking up the political bonds between the elites in Washington and the Wall Street.

If the Tea Partiers believe that the unholy marriage between the politicians and the financiers is a product of machinations by liberal apparatchiks which violates the traditional principles of the free markets and runs contrary to the interests of hard-working Americans and entrepreneurs in Main Street, the occupiers argue that this Washington-Wall Street axis results in the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of one per cent of Americans to the detriment of the interests of the rest.

These competing explanations by populists on the right and on the left rest on ideological doctrines that fail to take into consideration the complexities of the economic and social transformation that has been triggered in turn by dramatic technological and demographic changes and the evolution of the entire global economic system.

This populism comes with strains of anti-intellectualism, anti-government and anti-capitalism, and is also playing into the hands of right-wing and left-wing demagogues that scapegoat immigration or trade or China for the nation's problems.

At the same time, the structural impediments to political change, including a stagnant legislative system, a gigantic bureaucracy and the continuing influence of the lobbyists, make it close to impossible for reformers to work for change from within the system, highlighting the growing detachment between the public and the political class.

It is very doubtful that next year's presidential and congressional elections are going to help create a political environment more conducive for change. More likely, Republicans and Democrats will try to exploit the populist fury for partisan purposes.

Change will only come if and when the members of the current political class would leave the scene, helping facilitate new ideological and political realignments. It probably would not look like the French or Russian revolutions. But it would not be a pretty picture.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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