Study: Polarization and Gridlock Work Well for Rich Americans

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At the end of 2013, only 12 percent of Americans held a positive view of Congress – three points above the all-time low set earlier in the year, according to Gallup. Two out of three respondents to a CNN/ORC poll said this was the worst functioning Congress they’d seen in their lifetimes. And these dismal views weren’t just the product of subjective impressions – in its first year, the 113th Congress managed to pass only 66 bills, the fewest in the 40 years for which reliable data exists.

But a study published last November in The Journal of Politics suggests that this sorry state of affairs is good news for a small group of Americans at the top of the economic pile. “Washington gridlock helps the super-rich stay rich, and get richer,” says Thomas Volscho, a sociologist at the City University of New York and one of the authors of the study. “And the richer they get, the more the gridlock actually helps them.”

The researchers looked back over 70 years of data, and found that the more dysfunctional Washington is, the bigger the share of the pie the top one percent tends to grab. And most importantly, they also found that when economic inequality is high, the kind of polarization and gridlock that have been the hallmark of Washington since Barack Obama’s election make legislative efforts to change course all-but-impossible.

The study’s authors looked at how three variables influenced the share of the nation’s income grabbed by the top one percent of households between 1940 and 2006. First, they considered how much gridlock existed in the Senate. Then, they studied the distance in political preferences between the president and the House and Senate. And then they looked at how much each Congress got done.

Their findings suggests that Congress, and especially the Senate — where a minority can gum up the works– has a strong bias toward maintaining the status quo, and when there’s already a lot of inequality, a self-reinforcing cycle emerges. Volscho explained to Moyers & Company that, ”in the United States, the institutional design of the government was designed to be inherently conservative – to make it hard to get things done. Inequality is self-reinforcing, so as the rich become richer, Congress’s inability to pass legislation that could change that situation gets worse.”

READ: The impasse created by filibusters abuse in the Senate over time

Essentially, a do-nothing Congress does nothing to prevent the wealthiest from taking an ever-larger share of the nation’s income at the expense of the rest of us. (It’s worth noting that the study used pretax incomes, so the effects weren’t a result of changes in the tax code. Rather, it shows that Washington sets up the rules of the market – determines the level of the playing field – and they, in turn, influence how much low-skilled workers, top CEOs and everyone in between takes in.)

The data is consistent except for a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the level of inequality in the United States was relatively low. So why doesn’t the bias toward maintaining the status quo work when prosperity is more broadly shared? “When the economic pie is more evenly distributed, then political power is more evenly distributed as well,” explains Volscho. “So those at the bottom can have their voice be heard more than it is” when wealth is highly concentrated at the top.

The study is part of a growing body of research into how politics and inequality are intertwined.

Other recent studies looked at partisanship. A paper published last year by Volscho and Nathan Kelly, a political scientist at the University of Tennessee and a co-author of the gridlock study, found that, between 1949 and 2008, a one percent increase in congressional seats held by Republicans (about five seats), correlated with the top one percent of households seeing their share of the nation’s income go up by about four-fifths of a percent, regardless of which party occupied the White House.

Others have looked at how the ideological positions of the two major parties play a role. And a number of studies have concluded that the average voting patterns of senators from both parties tend to align with the interests of the wealthy first and foremost, of the middle class occasionally and almost never those of the poor.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Ron Jackson

    Dead on IMO. The government shutdown and general gov dysfunction has allowed the 1% to freely go on with their agenda’s. Many of those agenda pathways were entrenched long before Obama was ever sworn in. This included a seething unwavering hatred of Obama before he ever took his first oath to office, and was/is often without any rational basis, or there is no actual need for one. A dysfunction governement is the 1%’s best ally until they can get another hard core conservative in the White House. (Which should be a cold day in Hell if swing voters understand what they did to the country during a depression they caused and then prolonged at every opportunity)

  • Stuart

    The radical right’s strategy is the same as it was in late Weimar Germany, in the early 1930s. Create and maintain economic depression and destroy confidence in democratic institutions through stalemate. This is the fascist roadmap to power.

  • Yoda

    Big government might work, but the product sucks and is always a lower quality. Waiting in lines like zombie robots and such, isn’t of a good quality product.

  • Baron95

    Another meaningless report on the popularity of Congress. Americans are VERY satisfied with their congressional representation. That is why, every congressional election, we have 90% of congress being re-elected.

    Get it? 90% approval (as in voting to re-elect) rating.

    What voters may disapprove of, is the performance of the “other” side of congress – the ones they didn’t vote for.

    We have a perfect popularity contest every two years. All other polls mean nothing. How many seats changed side in the last election? Virtually none.

  • DOUGO

    There is no longer a question of the wealthy playing on the weakness of our Government to uh, Govern. I guess the real question is when the accumulation of wealth is enough. I’m a believer more wealth is needed to pay off our Legislators in order to generate more wealth at the expense of the needy. Our Government has allowed, encouraged and endorsed this behavior through legislation and or lack of it. You cant blame those accumulating it. You can however blame those allowing this to happen. This lack of morality and conviction brought down the Roman Empire and if left unchecked we will follow suit!

  • DOUGO

    This result is from failed Government policies! If Government had been managing our Country through good sound policies / Legislation, the wealth distribution would offset the advantaged vs. disadvantaged. Once you have achieved security, isn’t that enough! Unfortunately the argument has turned into laziness and the poor are not worthy of help as they are getting more than they deserve now. When do the wealthy get as much as they deserve and who determines this?

  • Jenny

    Please tell lme you are trolling.