By James Florio
The trauma that the nation has been put through while enacting a normally routine debt limit extension is one more piece of evidence that our political system is not working. That system relies upon a minimum degree of comity to function. The need to compromise to reach a consensus is essential in our diverse society. Rigid incivility characterizes our current politics. It is important to understand how we got to this place if we are to change the course.
All of political history can be categorized as continuing tension among groups of people divided into those benefitting from the existing system and those who aren’t and, therefore, advocate change. In normal times, this struggle and tension stay within acceptable bounds of moderation and are conducted civilly due to the expectation that change is attainable.
However, in some periods, the stakes become so high for each side and the prospect for change so remote that traditional rules of conduct fall by the wayside. Political intervention becomes ideological warfare. Hope disappears and the very existence and survival of the contenders is threatened.
The Populist Era of the 1890s, when our largely agricultural economy was threatened by growing Industrialization, is an example of such a time. The Great Depression of the 1930s, pitting the working class against financial interests, is another period of extreme divergence of views as to the common good.
Our current situation finds the forces of the status quo largely defined by those who have wildly prospered over the last decade or two confronted by the vast majority of people who consider themselves middle class or working class.
The evidence of legitimate concern about the vastness of the chasm that separates advocates for, and challengers to, the status quo, is abundant. The purchasing power of the great majority of citizens has decreased over the last decade.
Wages are stagnant and job opportunities are decreasing. Insecurity reigns for most people. It has been estimated that the top 400 affluent families control more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans!
The extreme economic disparity between the very well off and the rest raises questions about the viability of the concept of upward mobility, which has always been the social and political safety valve for this country.
Our current extreme economic division raises social as well as economic threats. People who have worked their way into the middle class now face the specter of falling back into the ranks of the poor – losing not only homes and income, but perhaps, as importantly, status and self-esteem.
Working-class people without work lose their very identity. Under such conditions, people become alienated from the existing system and want it overturned. Hence, the Tea Party. Compromise and moderation become sinful.
Thoughtful people on the affluent side of the economic divide understand that the continuation of this status quo will result in serious social instability – a taste of which we are now experiencing. Unfortunately, they appear to be a minority of that group.
Upholders of the status quo resist remedial change at every turn be it financial services, healthcare or energy policy. They seek to defend what is becoming more and more indefensible. A rigid ideological façade is created to justify policies of blatant self-interest unmindful of the public interest.
Accordingly, advocates for change, facing the power and intransigence of the status quo, become desperate and respond in kind to the venomous politics of incivility. Pragmatism and practicability go out the window.
To break this Gordian knot, the burden appears to me to be on those who have benefitted most from policies of the recent past – realizing that the current economic imbalance is not sustainable and that social instability is inevitable – unless we change course.
It is heartening to hear someone like Warren Buffett lament the inequity of our tax code that allows him to pay taxes at a lower rate than his secretary. Sensitivity like that is essential if we are to avoid further social and political disruption and restore moderation to our system of governance. For the well-to-do, it represents the long view of self-interest.
James J. Florio
Former Governor of New Jersey
Founding Partner, Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader, L.L.C.