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Commentary: Polarization - the single biggest threat to the United States

FORT LEE, N.J., Sept. 2, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The following is written by Patrick R. Romain, editor in chief of The Weekly Leaf: 

U.S. Polarization Feedback Loop – Theweeklyleaf

The standing of the United States will likely weaken over the next several years, setting the country on a path to become an also-ran middle tier power by 2035.

By most measures and indicators that bear on future performance and strength, America's advantage over other countries is disappearing – fast. Meanwhile, the country's political leadership is unable (or unwilling) to confront the magnitude and urgency of America's challenges, with the complicity of a media fascinated with sensationalism and winners and losers.

Politicians' preoccupation with vitriol, and their demonization of those with whom they disagree, is handicapping (perhaps irreparably) the country's ability to implement solutions and legislate policies needed to reverse a number of alarming trends.

America's economic performance has clearly improved since the 2008-2009 Great Recession, and continues to show signs of amelioration. The Federal Reserve expects Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to grow within a range of 3.0 percent to 3.2 percent in 2015, compared to its 2.1-2.3 percent GDP forecast for 2014. The unemployment rate stood at 6.2 percent at the end July.

The country's housing sector, while not demonstrating the desired strength expected by most economists, has rebounded from the throes of the crisis. Household spending is rising moderately, and the latest (July) national Institute of Supply Management (ISM) index of 57.1 percent points to expansion in manufacturing for the 14th consecutive month. Additionally, the stock market (Dow Jones Industrials) is now trading above 17,000 – an all time high.

However, according to a June 23-29 2014 Rasmussen Survey, only 26 percent of likely American voters think the country is heading in the right direction.

A Rasmussen report notes that the percentage of voters with that opinion has stood below 30 percent for the 18 of the 26 weeks so far this year.  A more disconcerting statistic in the report is that a notable majority (67 percent) of the population believes the United States is headed down the wrong track.

A May Gallup poll also found that 74 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the current direction of the country. There is sufficient evidence to justify these attitudes, notwithstanding the current economic progress.

There are several other indicators and trends (many observable prior to the Financial Crisis) that point to America's decline when compared with other developed and growing emerging countries, including:

  • The educated workforce advantage of the U.S. over other countries has narrowed. At the end of 2011, 43 percent of 25-34 year-olds Americans had completed college, ranking the U.S. 12th among 37 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member and countries. In 1995, the U.S. ranked second after New Zealand. Relative to the future generation, Americans are starting out at a disadvantage; only 50 percent of U.S. children were enrolled in early childhood education at the age of three, compared with a 68 percent OECD average among OECD countries.
  • Disposable income inequality (the gap between richest and poorest) in the U.S. is the fourth highest in the OECD. The average income of the richest 10 percent of Americans was 16 times as large as for the poorest 10 percent (2011/2012 data), according to the OECD. Only Mexico and Chile held a higher measure than the U.S.
  • Nearly 25 percent of U.S. children live in poverty, according to a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 2013 report. Poverty is defined in the report as living in a household that earns less than half of the national median (UNICEF's Relative Poverty Line). Based on that measure, the U.S. ranks 34th out of 35 developed countries.
  • Life satisfaction is low.  Americans' views on Life Satisfaction, ranks the U.S. 17th out of 36 OECD member countries, with a grade of 7.0. The OECD Life Satisfaction average grade is 6.6. The Life Satisfaction grade for Switzerland – 7.8, Denmark – 7.6, Canada – 7.6, and Australia -7.4.
  • The number of unproductive U.S. citizens remains high.  More than two million Americans remained behind bars at the end of 2013; a level notably higher than incarceration levels in many other countries (International Centre for Prison Studies). The United States is also in the relative pole position with 716 per 100,000 of its national population in prison, compared with St. Kitts & Nevis (714) and Seychelles (709). Developed country peers had levels of detainees substantially lower than the U.S., including Canada with 118 per 100,000 people, Japan – 51, England and Wales – 148, France – 98; and Germany – 79.
  • The U.S. federal government recorded the largest budget deficits during the 2009-2012 period, relative to the size of the U.S. economy since 1946, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Consequently, federal debt held by the public (amount owed by the Federal Government) rose to near record levels, representing nearly 75 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Comparatively, public debt to GDP ratios in 2013 were 78.1 percent for Germany, 90.1 percent in the United Kingdom, 93.5 percent in France and 132.6 percent in Italy, according to Eurostat. Public debt to GDP ratios for China and India stood at 22.4 percent and 66.7 percent, respectively (International Monetary Fund). The CBO projects that U.S. public debt ($12.6 billion as of June 30, 2014), as a percentage of GDP will exceed 100 percent by 2039.

While a significant number of Americans hold a pessimistic view of the country's future, their opinion of their elected officials is pronouncedly more negative.

According to a June Pew Survey, only 24 percent of Americans say that they can trust the federal government to do what is right. Additionally, 62 percent of Americans say they feel frustrated with the federal government.

In particular, the level of confidence Americans have in their congressional representatives has sunk to a new low, according to a June 5-8 Gallup poll. Only seven percent of Americans express a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress, down from a previous 10 percent low in 2013, and dramatically lower than a reported 42 percent confidence level in 1973, the first year the Gallup survey posed the question. "Confidence rose in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but has declined since 2004, culminating in this year's historic low," Gallup wrote.

This lack of confidence is not limited to politicians. The same Gallup poll also revealed that Americans' trust in the news media "is at or tied with record lows." The level of confidence has been in decline since the mid 1990s, in particular in television news and newspapers, with only approximately 20 percent of Americans communicating "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in these platforms. Confidence in Internet news is also low, remaining relatively unchanged since 1999 when only 21 percent of Americans expressed a high level of confidence in online media.

According to a 2011 Pew survey, Americans' negative opinions about the performance of news organizations was at an all-time high. "Just 25 percent say that in general news organizations get the facts straight while 66 percent say stories are often inaccurate" the report stated. The survey also found that most Americans prefer news with no political point of view. A subsequent 2012 Pew survey found that 64 percent of the American public preferred non-partisan political news.

The pessimistic outlook of millions of Americans is being shaped through the lens of a news industry that assigns a significant share of its coverage to the political partisanship and bickering of national leaders.

Leading cable news organizations (Fox News, MSNBC and CNN), which are driven by the myopic goal of increasing viewer ratings, seem to provide the megaphone to those who promise controversy and hyper-partisanship, and who communicate disagreements with combative language and with personal attacks.

Consequently, the American public is infected with the negativity, cynicism and mistrust of a handful of uncompromising and ideologically entrenched politicians.

That level of political polarization, according to Pew Research Center, "is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades." In its June 12, 2014 report titled "Political Polarization in the American Public," Pew notes that "today, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican" and that those in each party with a highly negative opinion of the opposing party "has more than doubled since 1994."

The rise of polarization in America coincides, not surprisingly*, with the growth of the ideologically biased cable news networks, in particular MSNBC and the Fox News Channel (FNC).

MSNBC and FNC, which both launched in 1996, grew their share of prime time news viewership over the past decade, mostly at the expense of CNN and the TV networks CBS, NBC and ABC. According to Pew Research's State of The News Media 2014 Report, the median prime time viewership of MSNBC increased to 818,000 in 2012 from 287,000 in 2003. FNC's viewership increased from 1.3 million to nearly 1.9 million over the same period. In contrast, CNN saw its viewership decline from 832,000 in 2003 to just 626,000 in 2012.

The recent and perennial topics that have been broadcast and elevated as divisive narratives, largely by FNC and MSNBC, include: healthcare, education, tax reform, climate change, BridgeGate, immigration reform, gay marriage, the Bengazi investigation, IRS investigation, Veterans Health Administration scandal, Cliven Bundy, 99 percent vs. 1 percent, minimum wage, the U.S. Supreme Court Holly Lobby decision, Central America children at the U.S. border and the impeachment of the president.

Unfortunately, many of these important issues and related policy initiatives are currently ensnared in political gridlock, which continues to hold America's progress hostage, following the harrowing fiscal policy brinksmanship of the past three years.

In a paper published this May, Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution think tank, examines the causes and consequences of legislative gridlock, and "the problem solving capacity of Congress and the president in recent polarized times."

Binder concludes that the ability of the U.S. political system to "self correct" over time remains "an open question." She acknowledges, however, the notable increase in the frequency of legislative deadlock that has occurred over the past ten years, characterizing the 112th (2011-2012) Congress as the most gridlocked during the postwar era.

Sadly, the voices of dedicated politicians who are committed to solutions and who embrace compromise are being ignored. For example, representatives of the organization NoLabels, formed in 2010 by many Democrats, Republicans and independents to promote bipartisanship and collaboration, are notably absent from the cable cameras. The group, which focuses on bipartisanship, is ridiculed by some who prefer confrontation and entrenchment, and its views and potential influence hidden from the majority of Americans.

Despite all the findings, the United States still has the largest economy in the world, and maintains the most capable military. The country has been preeminent on both fronts since the post World War II period, which coincided with an economic expansion and prosperity made possible largely by the hard work and aspiration of millions of immigrants who flooded to America's shores, seeking the freedom and opportunity to improve their lives.

The U.S. also remains a leader in innovation, and is the bedrock of entrepreneurship. The country is home to Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. Importantly, many of these companies were founded and/or are led by foreign-born Americans; Jen Yang (Taiwan) – Yahoo, Pierre Omidyar (France/Iran) – eBay, Sergey Brin (Russia) – Google, and Andrew Grove (Hungary) – Intel.

The rise of America's economic and military prowess coincided with an educational system that was second to none. America's declining lead in education and quality of life, are leading indicators that portend ill for the country's ability to maintain its economic and military advantage.

Indeed, the strength of the U.S. will likely diminish over the next decades under the weight of the aforementioned trends, an increasingly apathetic and pessimistic populace, a polarized political class unwilling to find or to promote common ground, and increasing geopolitical threats. In the interim, America's competitors (and enemies) relish the country's internal discord, and eagerly await the decline of power that invariably results from disunity.

Alarmingly, too many U.S. politicians refuse to acknowledge what ails America, and are quick to dismiss compromise, instead spouting cathartic references to the Constitution and to "American Exceptionalism" while promoting class discord and accusing other Americans of wishing her demise.

But what is and has always been uniquely exceptional about the United States, is that it is home to the universal human aspiration to live in a collaborative society that allows for the pursuit of self-interest without fear of persecution. Indeed, an overwhelming majority of Americans (and many aspiring Americans) wish to live in a place where

  • their children can be inspired, learn and achieve to the best of their abilities
  • one is free to worship, or not
  • one is free to express opinion and ideas freely without censorship
  • the streets are clean and safe
  • the air and the environment are not toxic and harmful
  • food is safe and abundant
  • roads, bridges and buildings are structurally sound
  • the economy and financial markets are resilient and transparent, and allow for each citizen to pursue self interest unabashedly according to effort and ability
  • residents can rely on the best (local, state and federal) protective forces from those (foreign or domestic) who wish them harm
  • a vibrant and independent media is proactive in helping to counter potential government excesses, while providing full transparency on issues that permit citizens to support policies and to choose representatives consistent with their perceived self-interest.

It is unclear how much more of a wake up call is needed to persuade American "leaders" to adopt a more collaborative approach to solving the country's deepening problems, and to discard the obstinate and irrational preference for conflict and animosity. This deepening refusal to change course will undoubtedly damage and permanently infect the world's most robust democracy.

*In its June 2014 Report – Political Polarization in the American Public, Pew acknowledges the rise of the polarized views of cable news, but notes that its Polarization Project will "later" explore the various factors that contribute to political polarization, including "news sources".

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SOURCE The Weekly Leaf

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