El Pueblo Callado Jamas Sera Escuchado

Thanks to commentator js noble, I have been referred to a website that synthesizes two major topics from this week--one that dominated the news, and one that dominated my discussions on MyDD--and discusses the real-life policy implications of those two phenomenon. The book, Polarized America, The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, by Nolan McCarty , Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, describes its argument as follows:Using NOMINATE (a quantitative procedure that, like interest group ratings, scores politicians on the basis of their roll call voting records) to measure polarization in Congress and public opinion, census data and Federal Election Commission finance records to measure polarization among the public, the authors find that polarization and income inequality fell in tandem from 1913 to 1957 and rose together dramatically from 1977 on; they trace a parallel rise in immigration beginning in the 1970s. They show that Republicans have moved right, away from redistributive policies that would reduce income inequality. Immigration, meanwhile, has facilitated the move to the right: non-citizens, a larger share of the population and disproportionately poor, cannot vote; thus there is less political pressure from the bottom for redistribution than there is from the top against it. In "the choreography of American politics" inequality feeds directly into political polarization, and polarization in turn creates policies that further increase inequality.

The charts on the website, one of which I have reproduced here, certainly support this position. The lifespan of the New Deal Coalition, 1933-1977, saw the period both of lowest political polarization in America since Reconstruction, and the period of lowest income inequality. The total collapse of the New Deal coalition in the early 1980's ushered in a period of both profound political polarization and a great increase in income inequality.

One major problem we face is that political polarization and split government seems to inherently led to less responsive and effective government. In other words, it might be easier for conservatives to se their agenda implemented during an era or split governmental control than it is for progressives to see their agenda implemented during a period of split government control (see the 1980's). Polarization in an era of split government can lead to gridlock and an inactive, unresponsive federal government that results in increased income inequality. Granted, it is also entirely possible that Republicans and conservatives just have a far superior political machine that they are able to utilize in order to pass their agenda during periods of split partisan control or a period of narrowly achieved trifecta control. The reality may be a combination of the two factors.

Whatever that cause may be, what is undeniable in all of this is el pueblo callado jamas sera escuchado. As one of the tow great rallying cries of the recent political demonstrations, I am not even going to bother to translate that phrase here, both because most people reading this blog probably know what it means, and because the statement is all the more appropriate when it is not understood in Spanish than it is when understood in English. If the large segments of our country are not participating in the political process, whatever demographics are over-represented in those segments will not see their interests reflected in government. We live in an era when voter participation is down (or at least we were for a while--things might be changing), when the "War on Drugs" has caused felony disenfranchisement to shoot way up, when the percentage foreign born Americans not participating in the political process is way up, when union workplace density is way down, and when there is a great income disparity is partisan voting preferences (that wasn't the case only a few decades ago). The combination of these factors has led to several very specific demographics--African Americans, Latinos, young people, low income Americans--not seeing their interests reflected in government, and a general lack of national consensus on national policy that now opposes the interests of those groups at every turn.

Our national income disparity and national political polarization is never going to change unless policies are instituted that increase participation of the currently less participatory groups. If immigration reform is passed that does not give foreign-born Americans a path to citizenship and the stakeholder position within the political process that citizenship entails, all lower and middle income Americans, both native born and foreign born, will suffer as the size of their voice in the political process will decrease. Conservatives will never feel the electoral and direct activist sting of the increasingly excluded groups I listed above if they are continually shut out of the political process. By not offering them a path to citizenship ala Kennedy-McCain, the House immigration bill passed last December works to keep foreign-born Americans shut out of the political process, which will itself be a major factor that will keep the interests of all lower income Americans un-reflected in governmental policy. In direct contrast to the great progressive reforms of the 20th century that increased the number of stakeholders in our political process, including the 17th, 19th, and 26th amendments, the Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the conservative-driven immigration bill in the House will work to decrease the number of stakeholders in the American political process.

This week saw a historic stand by foreign-born Americans to claim a stake in the American political process. The people are not silent anymore, but the conservative immigration reform bill will work to return them to silence. The direction that is eventually adopted on immigration policy will, down the road, have tremendous impacts on many other areas of governmental policy. It will determine who will be heard, and whose interests will be reflected in governmental policy. It took me a little while to realize it, but this is almost certainly the most important legislative battle we will face for the reminder of Bush's tenure in the White House. This might even go beyond Iraq, Social Security, or judges. This is a great turning point in America's political fate. IF we want governmental policy that reflects the interests of all Americans, we have to take the correct, inclusive, and progressive direction. We cannot continue waging the battle of civilizations. The polarization of American politics has gone hand in hand with the polarization of American income and culture. We cannot continue to allow conservatives to shut people's voices out of the political process. Everyone's voice must be heard.

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