The recent struggle in the U.S. Congress regarding the so-called "fiscal cliff" is just the beginning of what is sure to be a prolonged battle. The difficulty in addressing how to bring the U.S. budget into balance is caused by a series of factors largely detached from this central issue.
One major factor has been the takeover of the Republican party by conservatives who believe in a smaller government. To achieve their goal, their preferred option is to "starve" government by preventing any increase in taxation while at the same time drastically reducing expenditures, primarily on social programs.
This move to the right was instigated by conservative evangelical Christians with an agenda to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion and to oppose same-sex marriage and acceptance of homosexuality. The evangelicals decided that only direct participation in the political process would bring success for this agenda so they joined the Republican party in large numbers.
Another factor was a perceived change in the status of the United States internationally and the simultaneous impact of international competition that has eroded much of the economy's manufacturing base and impacted middle-income jobs. Increasing economic uncertainty and changes in family structure as, for example, the rate of divorce rose, led many to feel vulnerable and in some way disenfranchised. Finally, real incomes for most Americans have been stagnant for more than three decades, yet the disparity of income and wealth has increased dramatically.
Left-leaning Democrats were also undergoing change. They believed that government was good and the private sector needed to be more tightly regulated to prevent exploitation of the poor and disadvantaged. In short, each party's core values have become more extreme.
Eventually, the number of politicians in both parties at the federal and state level who could be accused of not adequately defending attacks on the core values, aka "moderates," were were greatly reduced. The method of nomination for political office favours those with issue-driven organizations that can deliver votes when needed and, therefore, the zealots on both the right and left came to dominate the process.
In many cases, such polarization was made virtually permanent by the extensive use of gerrymandering by both parties.
With every census, each state redraws its electoral map and, in most states redrawing is done by the party that controls the legislature. Gerrymandering is now aided by computers that combine census data with data from previous polls to achieve whatever result is sought.
It has become so effective that more than 80 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives are considered so safe that politicians can be re-elected for life. The incumbent, therefore, has more to fear from a primary fight for renomination than from the actual election. With increasing frequency, a politician who does not hew to the party line is faced with a primary challenger who pledges undying fealty to the extreme core vales.
In the longer run, this effort can be self-defeating since the person nominated can be viewed by independent voters as so
unacceptable that the opposition candidate gets elected.
In the November election, some 20 extreme members of the House and two candidates for the Senate lost. But, until this scenario plays out in sufficient electoral districts, the absurd battles surrounding the "fiscal cliff" will remain the norm.
Sadly, the whole world will suffer because of the parochial interests inherent in the U.S. political process.
David Bond is an author and retired bank economist. Email: