Scott Rhee's Reviews > Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What It Means for 2012 and Beyond

Hopelessly Divided by Douglas E. Schoen
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's review
Sep 04, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: politics
Read from September 16 to 19, 2012

And, since I can’t say it any better than this...

“Let me... warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party... in [governments] of the popular form, it is in seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy... The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension... is itself a frightful despotism... the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another.” ---George Washington, in his Farewell Address, 1796

“Finally our political system has become paralyzed by partisanship to a degree that has many citizens, and investors, depressed and wondering whether we are capable anymore of collective action.” ---Thomas Friedman, New York Times, Sept. 10, 2011

“I’ve been inundated with messages from people I’ve never met. They are all sharing their stories that have one common theme: “We don’t feel represented, and we don’t recognize the country.”” ---Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks

“And in fact Republican and Democratic office holders and their retinues show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income among one another than between both and the rest of the country. They think, look and act as a class.” ---Angela Codevilla

So, apparently my animosities have been misplaced, according to Douglas Schoen. As someone who affiliates myself with the Democratic party, I have been harboring an antagonism towards the Republicans for so long, that I have apparently been blinded by the inadequacies and problems of the party I call my own. The political divide between the parties is there, to be sure, but it’s not the real problem. The so-called “class warfare” between the ultra-rich and the lower- and middle classes isn’t even the real problem. It’s all a clever smokescreen perpetrated (perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not entirely) by both parties to distract voters’ attentions from the real issues. The divisiveness that I, and the average American, perceives as being between the two parties or between the rich and the poor is, in actuality, a divisiveness between the “political class”, as Schoen calls it, and everyone else in America, rich and poor, conservative and liberal. Schoen defines the political class as our elected officials and business leaders, of both parties, who are no longer accountable to the people whom they consider their constituents: namely, us. Unchecked and de-regulated campaign finance, blatant redistricting and gerrymandering, out-of-control special interest lobbying: these are some of the forces that have helped to weaken (some might say completely destroy) what remains of our democracy in this country. As Schoen elegantly puts it:

“The federal branch of our two-party democracy has become a system that by its very nature cannot find solutions to major issues, from record deficits to a debt crisis to massive unemployment. Neither problem has a serious jobs agenda, even after three years of debilitating unemployment rates. These problems and others are simply not adjudicated; they are hidden beneath blizzards of partisan warfare or obscured by temporary fixes or half measures that fool no one. The struggles of millions of Americans with stagnant incomes, lost jobs, soaring education costs, and continuous rounds of housing foreclosures count for little beside the machinations of a political class that puts its interests ahead of ordinary people. (p. 26)”

Schoen’s latest book “Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What it Means for 2012 and Beyond” is a must-read for anyone sincerely interested in regaining a voice for the masses. Schoen, a Democratic pundit and consultant, has written the book (literally) on the root causes of the near-death of the American Dream and the political nightmare that has resulted. An objective analyst and critic of both parties, Schoen clearly makes the case that our solutions will NOT come from Washington, D.C. or Wall Street, but, rather, our solutions will and must come from the grass-roots up-swelling of informed, involved citizens. In his book, he carefully and descriptively looks at the history of how the political class came to be so powerful, how both parties have embraced left- and right-wing populist agendas that they are unwilling to compromise, how independent voters play a significant role in changing elections, how money has corrupted everyone involved in the political process and continues to do so due to an “everyone is doing it” mentality, and how lobbyists have pretty much destroyed any chances of average Americans having their voices heard.

Schoen conducted separate polls, one a national survey of 1,000 American voters in a random sampling, which Schoen refers to as the “mainstream” and another survey of 200 “ultra-rich” Americans. (Schoen defines “ultra-rich” as “those with total personal investible assets over $1 million”. This data was compared with data of members of the political class. The results were interesting, to say the least. Here are a few:

When asked “How fair is America?”, 75% of the political class agreed that it is generally fair, as opposed to 67% of the mainstream and 56% of the ultra-rich who disagreed, saying that discrimination against certain groups happened regularly.
When asked “Are America’s best days in the past or the future?”, 71% of the political class said that the best days are to come, while 51% of the ultra-rich and 65% of the mainstream agreed that America’s best days are behind us.
When asked “How responsive are our leaders to the serious issues facing us today?”, 86% of the political class said that our leaders are responsive, while 76% of the mainstream and 66% of the ultra-rich agreed that our leaders are NOT responsive.
When asked “Does the federal government today have the consent of the governed?”. the mainstream and the ultra-rich agreed, 58% and 63%, respectively, that the government does NOT have the consent of the governed. Interestingly, the political class was split fairly evenly on this question.

You can see where this is going, and you probably inherently knew this to be true. Granted, this was a small sampling done by the author, but its results make sense, intuitively, and they do point out the interesting fact that average Americans (read: lower to middle class) and the ultra-rich don’t think that differently. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “The rich are different”, to which Hemingway allegedly responded, “Yes. They have more money.” Joking aside, when the rich and the poor see eye to eye on many of the political issues facing us today, while those in power see pretty much the opposite, something is very wrong with this picture.

Has it always been this way, and we’ve just been oblivious to it? Schoen seems to think not, that it has been just within the past 10-15 years that some of the problems that have always plagued Washington have swelled and combined to form perfect storms. Prior to the (second) Bush Administration, the consensus in Washington was fairly moderate. Even Reagan’s politics, compared to the Republicans of today, could be viewed as pretty moderate. Both parties, unfortunately, have split so extremely far left and right of center, that our government seems to be in a permanent state of gridlock. One of the main reasons for this is the resurgence of new left- and right-wing populist movements, which both parties have tried to embrace and appease through uncompromising positions that allow for little to nothing to get done. In the bulk of Schoen’s book, he goes into splendid detail of the histories of the left and right populism movements, how they came about, what the main components for which they stand are, and how their extremism has been counter-productive and may result in the very things that they are fighting against.

Finally, Schoen writes about how a landmark Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which basically ruled that corporations and unions could give unlimited money to support or criticize specific candidates, has essentially made money the true leader in Washington. Add to that Leadership PACs, Super PACs, and Mega-Donors like the Koch Bros. and George Soros, and, as Schoen writes, “the idea that we have a representational democracy, where candidates raise their own money based on levels of overall popular support, is simply gone. (p. 201)”

In a final conclusion chapter, simply titled “Reform or Fail”, Schoen suggests that people start getting active and involved in imploring our elected officials to overhaul the system. Schoen delicately handles this heavy subject, throughout the book, without doling out blame to individuals or groups of people. Virtually everyone is to blame. We have all let this get out of hand. On the same token, though, we all have it in us to turn it around.

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