Elites and Polarization


Elites and Polarization

The readings for this week outlined the complexity of polarized politics, particularly its history, output, and negative consequences on not only the United States electorate but also the nations' own institutions of governance. In the McCarty article, he touches on how polarization limits the ability of congressional and legislative officials to undertake ambitious policy making. Moreover, McCarty asserts that polarization has weakened the ability of the legislative branch to engage in meaningful policy making, especially as it relates to economic and social issues. As a result, judicial and executive branch officials, according to McCarty, are forced to independently create policy to mitigate these effects.

Building off the general context of polarization in US politics laid by McCarty, the text by Mann and Ornstein touch on the inception of modern polarization through focusing on the effects of a coarsened political culture on governance. The authors also attribute a sensationalized media and the influence of ever increasing droves of money to polarization and ineffectiveness of the US government in policy making.

Lastly, the Arceneaux and Nicholson piece give specific insight into a political party attributed to polarizing US politics, the Tea Party. In the article, the authors give a profile of the Tea party and confirm some of the long held perceptions of the political entity such as their disdain for President Obama's economic policies. Conversely, the authors elucidate common myths about the party such as the homogenous nature of its supporters and that their values are primarily motivated by racial resentment.

All in all, it is noteworthy that each reading acknowledged the power of a small or elite group of people radically polarizing the political landscape. From Newt Gingrich's cohort of lawmakers resulting in the demise of centrists, the power of Tea Party elites in shaping the movement's perception, to even the use of parliamentary tactics by a small group of legislators that result in polarization-induced-gridlock, an elitist influence is seemingly acting as a catalyst to polarization. As evidenced by Domhoff, while the elite echelon of society might not be directly involved, the polarizing figures of politics (i.e. Newt Gingrich at the Bohemian retreat) are welcoming access to them. As a result, through their resources, the elite's of society are likely proliferating the polarizing narrative of US politics today.

What role do the elite play in political polarization?


I also thought it was interesting when McCarty asserted that polarization is an “elite phenomenon.” That while the general electorate is not becoming ideologically distant, the legislators that represent them are. I also thought it was interesting to compare the Mann and Ornstein piece to the McCarty piece. Mann and Ornstein are pretty explicit in blaming the GOP for most of the gravitation towards highly polarized politics, and the McCarty article makes the case, as you mentioned, that polarization causes policy-making to become irresponsive to a changing environment. Democrats, being the more progressive party, would seem to be the biggest losers in this scenario. So if elites, Republicans are the main culprit of increasing polarization, what organized response needs to be undertaken by moderates and liberals? Is there any reversing the polarizing divide that has led to a completely debilitated branch of government?

As suggested by McCarty (2007, p. 224) “One of the most important things to keep in mind is that polarization is primarily an elite phenomenon (…)”. Assuming this holds, and assuming what Domhoff suggests, the political polarization is a way that the elites (or upper class) have to socialize and keep their institutions working. Thus, the role that elite play is merely a consequence of how they work.

Now, the public has also incorporated this polarization within their institutions. This is what makes this phenomenon very complex, because the distinction between elite and mass is blurred and “hot button” issues are equally confronted at the two levels. Accordingly, the role that the elite plays is to make this confrontation more evident to the public, and use the public’s reactions as fuel of the polarization. So it is very difficult to find a causation relationship between elite and masses towards political polarization.

I feel like many had the initial assumption that the Tea Party was a movement representing an ignorant, small-minded approach to governance. It's revealing that Arceneaux and Nicholson attribute affluence to many members. This is consistent with other studies on Tea Party members.

Harvard's Theda Skocpol identified that not only were Tea Party members affluent, but they were organized. She notes how they referred to contentious legislative proposals by their appropriate bill numbers, some even sacrificing their despised "Obamacare" for the "Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act". (FYI - her book is called "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism"). It is largely consistent with Arceneaux and Nicholson, but provides a more in depth look.

While I personally struggle with the cornerstone Tea Party beliefs, I acknowledge the legitimacy of their tenets. They seem to be built with a grassroots approach, relying on what is in some respects an relatively informed base.

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