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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Of course we're politically divided

“Political divisiveness.” “Government gridlock.” As with most of our popular public discourse, this bemoaning of a lost national consensus is as misleading as it is fatuous.

My teen years, the 1950s, were spent in cultures of fundamental consensus. In Louisiana, the consensus was to keep black people subjugated by all means possible, and it openly called itself white supremacy. In the U.S., the consensus was to maintain by all means possible Western control of the Third World as it struggled to shake off colonialism, but it masked itself as anti-communism. There was little political divisiveness in my state or nation, because the voices of those whose interests weren’t served by the consensus were ruthlessly suppressed.

The 1960s were a period of turmoil in the South and the nation because historically marginalized and oppressed peoples asserted themselves. This change from a deeply unjust consensus to a divisiveness generative of enhanced justice paralleled our nation’s earlier contrast of the 1920s with the 1930s.

The primary fissures of our nation don’t run through our legislative chambers. Candidates, don’t tell me you can reach across the aisle. I want to know who you serve. And don’t insult my intelligence by saying you serve the people of your district or state or nation. Yes, all of us are best served by justice; rightly understood, politics is the collective quest for justice. But people’s perceived self-interests are less highminded, and they support politicians who advance them.

Jessica Gomez may have believed that her opposition to any new state taxes would benefit all of us, not just the big businesses that poured so much money into her campaign to prevent the state Legislature from raising corporate taxes and thus generating more revenue. But what she believed is irrelevant. Jeff Golden’s victory served the majority in this state, whose well-being depends on properly funded public goods such as education and health care.

Our politics are especially divisive now because the gap between the very wealthy and everyone else has grown so wide. When Republicans, who to a person serve the very wealthy, control the White House and Congress, there is no gridlock. They enact the agenda of the financial and corporate elites. When Democrats control the White House and Congress, as in 2013-14, there is gridlock or shoddy compromises (e.g., the Affordable Care Act), because Democrats keep trying to serve both sides of the divide. They’ve made some progress since the Clinton era, when the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, which gutted Glass-Steagall, passed the House 362-57 and the Senate 90-8. But they aren’t where we need them to be.

In 2011, Warren Buffet said publicly several times some version of, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” This in response to Republican attempts to discredit, by calling it class warfare, opposition to their policies serving the very wealthy. But Occupy Wall Street had it right, and so did some of the original tea partiers before the Republicans shrewdly redirected their resentment toward “government.”

Political divisiveness won’t abate until our gaping class division is again moderated in favor of greater equity. Nor should it. Republicans are united in this struggle, which is one reason they’ve had extraordinary success given how few voters their policies serve. We need Democrats, not to make common ground with Republicans (we’ve had quite enough of that!), but to lead the vast majority of voters onto our common ground.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.