Tom Ferguson: The two major parties have next to no relationship to the
population, it is a deeply corrupt discussion - November 28, 2011
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Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Roosevelt Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and taught formerly at MIT and the University of Texas, Austin. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Golden Rule (University of Chicago Press, 1995) and Right Turn (Hill & Wang, 1986). Most of his research focuses on how economics and politics affect institutions and vice versa. His articles have appeared in many scholarly journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Economics, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Economic History. He is a long time Contributing Editor to The Nation and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of the Historical Society and the International Journal of Political Economy.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. And in Washington--surprise, surprise--politics is once again paralyzed. The supercommittee is more or less dead in the water, which means that they don't know what to do about their deficit emergency. And that's what the press is all full of and President Obama is also speaking about, that without an agreement, there won't be the necessary cuts to the deficit. But perhaps what's more urgent and is also going to be affected by this paralysis is anything to be done about the unemployment situation. And maybe that's really the more important piece of this, which almost none of the media is talking about. Now joining us to deconstruct all of this is Tom Ferguson. Tom is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and he's a regular contributor to The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Tom.TOM FERGUSON, POLITICAL SCIENCE PROF., UMASS BOSTON: Hi there.JAY: So this--what do you make of the paralysis, the mess? The 2012 election campaign is on, nothing else seems to matter, and Rome burns.FERGUSON: Well, I have to tell you, you know, in American politics, every day is turkey day. And here we are at Thanksgiving time, so--or I guess that's doubled. Look, I think, Paul, this is becoming crazy. And your--a couple of your remarks there are exactly on target. I mean, the deficit committee, or the supercommittee, the budget committee, is really a failed effort to solve the wrong problem. Now, that's going to make everything irrational just by its start. But what's becoming really dangerous is this is like, you know, three strikes and you're out. This might be strike two or strike three. If you count--the first strike was the Obama incoming decision to do a half-size stimulus. You know. And in that, what he managed to do in two or two and a half years there was leave a very high rate of unemployment and a lot of people convinced that you couldn't use the state to do anything. Now we have an effort to tell people, oh, you've got to--your biggest problem is cutting the budget, which is ridiculous on its face in a recession. And then, of course, they couldn't do it. This is beginning to delegitimate the whole idea of democratic governance. And you--I can see this trend as I listen, you know, in the news. I mean, let's hope we don't end up rather like--you know, in Greece and in Italy you now have technocratic governments headed by former folks who worked for American investment banks. It's obvious that the desire for a technocratic thing is beginning to get very intense in parts of American society.JAY: And when--they use this term technocratic, but when you look at what happened in Greece, and particularly in Italy, it's like direct rule by bankers.FERGUSON: That's right. That's right. Yeah, I hope I was reasonably clear on that. Yeah, that's right. And, you know, in the case of the--I mean, you obviously don't have any reason to be chopping the budget much at all in a recession. But when you sort of deconstruct their dialog, if you compare that to the polls, the polls were giving you a very clear indication on what the public wanted. This is, I think, the clearest case I've seen in my lifetime. And you look at the polls, everybody's polls, two out of three Americans--a little more than that, actually--wanted taxes raised on the rich. Even a majority of the Republicans. And by four to one or more, Americans didn't want cuts in Social Security and they didn't want them in Medicare. So what did the Democrats do? They began by offering cuts in Medicare and Social Security. And then the Republicans wouldn't, you know, raise taxes. In the end, that's why the thing fell through. I mean, you can do all you want about on the one hand and on the other was the Republican refusal to relent on taxes that actually sent down this deal.JAY: Yeah. I've often wondered, you know, if you try to put myself in pre-World War I days, you know, how a world stumbles into such, you know, insanity as World War I, and you can kind of see it now. Like, there's just no rational--there's such an obvious, let me say, rational way to go here. Like, if you look at what's going on in Europe, there's such relatively easy fixes, and they just are not willing to do it. And we saw, on Wednesday, Germany was selling its ten-year bonds, and it barely sold half of them because people don't even want to buy German bonds now. I mean, really we're in such a dangerous moment. And the theater that goes on in Washington is like--it's not even in denial; it's like 2012 election is all that matters, and to hell with the world.FERGUSON: Yeah. It's also a little scary, in that you can see in the way the president varied his tactics he was deeply involved in the earlier negotiations over the extension of the budget and over the budget ceiling. And, you know, he was pushing the party leadership in Congress to offer deals that would sometimes give as much as, you know, $10 in cuts for every dollar in tax rises. Now, this time around he held back, and as best as I can tell, that ratio didn't reach worse than about 2 to 1, that is to say, $2 in cuts for every proposed $1 in a tax rise. But I am quite struck by the way the president disappeared from these negotiations. He obviously decided he had nothing to gain from being involved. But that's a fantastic situation for, as you suggest, a country in the middle of a deep recession. He's obviously calculating that he will--that most people will blame the Republicans, and I don't doubt that they will. I expect to see the Republican negatives and in Congress go up. But I also think it makes Obama look pretty weak, and I suspect that his rating as a leader, which is already low, is going to go down. I mean, it's--you can feel a vacuum forming in American politics, even as the population detests more and more both political parties. I've never seen this in my life, and I guess I used to wonder whether it could actually happen. But, you know, here we are, and this is really something new under the sun in terms of recent experience.JAY: Is the underlying issue here is that the global financial elite and, you know, these top 40, 50 financial conglomerates, banks, and such and such, and then all the various interests connected to them, is they kind of reach the conclusion that the kind of structural changes that would be necessary to put off this deep recession/depression--in other words, real regulation, a real rise in wages, some kind of democratization--those kinds of structural changes are just so unacceptable that they've kind of decided, well, you know what, let's embrace the recession, and, you know, we'll get to buy up lots of goodies, we'll concentrate ownership more, we'll privatize public health assets, and so, you know, let the storms come, and we'll find ways to take advantage of it? 'Cause there's just no note of rationality, whether in America or Europe.FERGUSON: Well, remember, you've got contested outcomes here, so no single group or party is in a position to just deliver the outcome by themselves. But, you know, I'd accept that as a picture of the view in the Republican Party, and it's quite close to the truth in the Democratic Party. That is to say, there are folks--it's clear, I mean, Obama's raising a lot of money from finance. No matter what you read in The New York Times, that's a fact. Okay? I mean, The Times got that strange calculation by omitting contributions to the Democratic National Committee, which they should've counted there. And, you know, he's going to have a fair amount of support. I mean, that's one reason why he was so unwilling to sort of push in these negotiations. He's clearly trying to raise $1 billion for the campaign. But he is willing to take a tax rise. He just couldn't bring it across, a small one. I mean, you have this sort of--look, I sort of compare American politics right now to--you've got a couple of distant stars, and they're supposed to be revolving around a bigger one, the population, you know, the two political parties, and instead, these two distant stars have now moved off into their own solar system. They have almost no relation to the population. They're--to vary the metaphor, they're really bank accounts. And so it's--now you just--it's--the party system has moved so far from the population, it's ridiculous and it's dangerous, because they can't do anything effectively. I mean, you had a perfectly straightforward view from the polls about what you wanted to do. It wasn't what the parties wanted to do. You know, they wanted taxes raised on the rich, and they didn't want cuts in Medicare and Social Security. But that's the entirety not only of the parties, but as you suggested, the hold--nearly the whole of the media. It's a deeply corrupt discussion.JAY: Now, there's some talk of some kind of third party. Where's that at? And where do you think it might lead to?FERGUSON: Well, I mean, there's a lot of talk, but there is a very serious effort going on. They call it, I think, Americans elect or something like that. The--if you look closely, they're on the ballot in around 20 states, and they're pretty much on the ballot for next year everywhere you can get on this year for next year. Mostly you have to get on next year for next year. And I don't doubt they'll be moving along. While they say they're sort of above the existing parties, a close look shows you that leadership is very conservative. It's full of people who have in the past tried to overthrow Social Security and things like that. So I think you're going to find--I wouldn't be surprised to see a third-party nominee. Bloomberg's an obvious possibility. The neat thing from his or anybody else's standpoint is that somebody else is paying the bill here. You don't even have to file an exploratory committee. You can just let them put him on, and then you can graciously accept the nomination, if you wanted, you know, in the spring.JAY: You've got to figure that's got to hurt the Republicans more than Obama.FERGUSON: I'm not going along with that one. I think the turnout problems for the Democrats will be acute, and particularly if, you know, as I suspect, the falloff in blue-collar turnout's going to be a mess. And so if it becomes an election, you know, in which the turnout is way down and it's coming mostly (as turnout tends to do) from upper income groups, I wouldn't rush to the conclusion that it would be the Republicans who would be so--most badly hurt on that. That's--you're probably right, but, boy, I wouldn't bet the house on it. It's--frankly, my feeling about this is a bit like my feeling about all the claims that Romney has the Republican nomination sewed up. I mean, let's see a few elections. Let's see some primary elections. Let's see some--you know, this thing take shape in some polls. I'm a little cautious [crosstalk] JAY: So how dangerous a moment are we in?FERGUSON: Well, look, you're always in a dangerous position when you've gone three or four years and unemployment remains very high. The historical experience on that in the Great Depression is, I think, very clear. That's when all the swamp creatures come out. That's when, you know, more--I mean, in effect you can sort of see this, right? There's a tendency to polarize along what--you know, from the mass media would describe as the extremes. Now, the extremes here may be, you know, what, in terms of positions, the bulk of the population likes. But, you know, the Tea Party on the right, the Occupy Wall Street folks on the left, though they were doing extremely well in the polls, and despite assurances that they've fallen, I haven't actually seen a really good nationwide poll that shows that. Yeah. The--no, this has shown that the polarization dynamic amid, you know, deepening popular despair and hand-wringing at the ability of your elected officials--you've got to understand this. This is not simply that the government is incapable of doing anything. It's that its ties to big money have made it capable of doing anything. That's what's lacking on PBS, in The New York Times, and elsewhere. It was pathetic the other day in The Wall Street Journal where Gerald Seib had a column where he tried to pin this on redistricting, you know, which just doesn't reach the US Senate. You haven't been--I mean, you can make some kind of a case about redistricting in the House--though, as I've said, you know, in some scholarly papers it's mostly--the evidence there is not good. But, you know, there's--nobody's [redistricting] states, and the Senate's polarized, too. I mean, this is really a bit--this is becoming I Pagliacci--the clowns--in the popular discussion of this.JAY: Well, it's--this better be a decade of some new kind of politics, or this decade ain't going to end well. Thanks very much for joining us, Tom.FERGUSON: Thanks.JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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