Our political system is barely functional. The recently concluded 112th Congress set a record for the lowest number of laws passed since record-keeping began, in 1948. We are in the midst (and at the mercy) of a budget sequester that was intended only to scare Congress into behaving responsibly. Republicans, in thrall to Tea Party fanatics, refuse even to discuss new sources of revenue. Barack Obama, meanwhile, has not only proposed a remarkably impecunious domestic budget but has also broken what has been an iron rule of nearly all Democratic politicians for more than half a century by offering to reduce future Social Security payments through the mechanism of a "chained CPI" that slows down the cost-of-living increases built into the payments received by seniors. Predictably (and understandably), he has infuriated his base by doing so.
How are these diametrically opposed approaches being portrayed in the mainstream media? According to Politico's Jake Sherman, Obama's offer "might have been viewed as a bit more substantive. But [the] Republican leadership's calculus has changed. Since the fiscal cliff tax deal, which raised taxes on families earning more than $450,000, Republicans are demanding more expansive changes to entitlements." The rest of Sherman's report is devoted to detailing the Republican wish list without any sense of the radicalism of these demands, or their consistent unpopularity with real people (as opposed to pundits).
What about Slate's John Dickerson? He blames unnamed "forces of partisanship, ego, and limited imagination that have made crisis budgeting so dreary to watch.... The two parties have not even been in proximity of a major bipartisan deal in so long the very fact that they are in the same neighborhood is a possible sign that our system is not irreparably broken." Meanwhile, in a column called "Reclaim the Center" on the opinion page of The New York Times online, multimillionaire investment banker and Democratic Party funder Steven Rattner complains of "proselyt- izers of wacky, extreme ideas" from "the left," as well as from "conservatives," before demanding that "the sensible center...rise up and push for a rational approach to our fiscal challenges."
Believe me, I'm more annoyed at having to write this column again than you are at reading it. But dammit, nothing changes. The Republican Party has gone off the rails by virtually every available measure, and the media continue to blame "both sides."
Let's look at some data. According to a forthcoming study in the Drake Law Review by Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, we are experiencing "the largest and most uniform gap in the ideological orientation and voting patterns in the Senate and the House of Representatives in modern times." Keith Poole of the University of Georgia and Howard Rosenthal of New York University analyzed decades of data and discovered that Republicans have moved approximately six times as far rightward as Democrats have leftward in recent decades (and the Democratic drift is due almost entirely to the collapse of the Southern conservative wing of the party). The respected pollster Andrew Kohut reports: "In my decades of polling, I recall only one moment when a party had been driven as far from the center as the Republican Party has been today," referring to the Nixon landslide against George McGovern in 1972.
Writing in Politico of all places, Scot Faulkner, personnel director for the Reagan/Bush campaign in 1980, and Jonathan Riehl, former speechwriter for the right-wing Luntz Global consulting firm, recently complained of the corrosive effects of a "Republican world view that was devoid of facts and critical thinking," combined with the creation of "a new self-perpetuating political echo chamber." This follows on the remarks by longtime Republican congressional staffer Mike Lofgren, who noted two years ago that "the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe." And respected scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein announced last year that "The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."
Yet the pundits ignore all of the above because they prefer to spout their bullshit about the behavior of "both sides" free from the constraint of actual evidence. The very serious Jonathan Rauch of National Journal and the Brookings Institution wrote in 2010: "In the last two decades, a strong and persistent pattern has emerged, one that will dominate our politics for some time to come, because it is rooted in two important political realities. First, the public strongly prefers divided government. Second, it has every reason to." Alas, when Rauch says "the public," what he really means is "Jonathan Rauch and his pundit friends." In reality, Hasen notes, barely 30 percent of voters said they favored divided government in a poll taken the same year, as opposed to 66 percent who did not. Just 18.5 percent of voters chose to split their tickets in 2012. This is down from a rate of roughly 30 percent in the 1960s and 1970s.
How does he get away with spouting such nonsense and retain his position as a Very Important Pundit? As his fellow VIP, Matt Bai of The New York Times, brags: "Generally speaking, political writers don't think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn't one of them." Alas, to judge by the willingness of so many in the mainstream media to parrot the nonsensical arguments of Tea Party Republicans, not even science is "science" anymore. And therein lies our problem.