Rich Get Meaner, Pols Get Meaner

— The election was a nasty, bitterly partisan battle pitting liberal against conservative, Republican versus Democrat, rich versus poor. The combatants screamed at each other over such issues as tax cuts for the rich and immigration. But in the week since, we have been hearing about "fence-mending," "healing," "centrism," "goodwill," "moderation." Can we expect an era of good feeling?

It's not likely. Rancorous political polarization is now normal. Over the last three decades, political polarization has intensified. And over that same period, the gap between rich and poor has also grown. And immigration has increased. This followed seven decades of the reverse: more political cooperation, more equitable wealth distribution, and more moderate immigration. That's the view of Keith T. Poole, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

"I think there may be a temporary cease-fire for a month or so, January to February 2007, but I do not think it will last long," says Poole. "Although there will be an increase in moderate Democrats, the elections disproportionately eliminated the center-right Republicans. The Senate will not change much in terms of polarization. Given the impending 2008 election, which will see billions of dollars -- seriously -- spent on each side, I doubt if goodwill will last very long."

Without saying it, he is giving ammunition to those who conclude that the United States has returned to robber baron days. Superrich individuals and corporations manipulate politicians of both parties, who despite their similar source of funds, go loudly in different directions. There is a vast gap between the rich and those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Immigrants are brought in to take undesirable jobs at low wages, or jobs are shipped to low-wage countries so that companies can maximize profits.

Poole coauthored a book this year that is creating a buzz in academia, Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches (M.I.T. Press). In the robber baron days more than a century ago, political parties were poles apart, and so were the income differences between the rich and everybody else. Then from 1913 to 1957, both political polarization and income inequality receded. Republicans and Democrats cooperated more, and wealth and income differences weren't so wide.

In 1977, the Gilded Age started returning: political polarization, as measured by a complicated formula devised by Poole and his colleagues, grew again, as income inequality returned with a vengeance. Corporate chief executive pay began soaring out of control and has not stopped. Immigration picked up in the 1970s too.

Here are some statistics (not necessarily used by Poole). Chief executives of the largest corporations make 500 times what the average worker makes. Forty years ago it was 80 times. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the top 1 percent of Americans has 34.4 percent of the wealth. The top 5 percent has 58.9 percent. The bottom 80 percent has 15.3 percent.

The difference was not always so steep. According to United for a Fair Economy, between 1947 and 1979, the most affluent 5 percent of the population had the lowest family income growth: 86 percent. The fastest growth was among the lowest 20 percent: 116 percent.

But between 1979 and 2000, things tipped in favor of the rich. Incomes of the top 1 percent grew 201 percent, while those of the bottom 20 percent grew by just 9 percent. These are similar to the phenomena observed by Poole and his colleagues.

In the last 25 years, as the rich widened the gap with the poor, politicians became less tolerant of income-redistribution programs such as the minimum wage, Medicaid, and progressive taxation, says Poole. Republicans in the House and Senate latched on to the concept of the "ownership society." They wanted to privatize Social Security. They pushed tax cuts for the rich.

Such moves seemed to backfire in last week's election. The public clearly has not bought into the ownership society. Republicans kept saying that the economy was improving. But it was improving for those at the top -- not those in the middle and the bottom, that 80 percent. Their incomes have barely grown for several years.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, an economics professor at Princeton, has been reading the Poole findings and smelling the same kind of class warfare that is boiling in Latin America. Krugman's June 19 column was titled "Class War Politics," citing the work of Poole and his coauthors. Inequality killed bipartisanship, wrote Krugman. The Iraq War is a diversion, argued the professor. The real war is a class war, and as in the robber baron days, Republicans are interested in massaging one class: the upper one.

Krugman "is not incorrect, but there are a lot more subtleties," says Poole. "The very rich are getting much richer, but the overall level of wealth is increasing as well," except for the immigrants at the very bottom. "The people in the middle class are doing fairly well in terms of material goods."

Although there is a larger ideological fissure between liberals and conservatives and between Democrats and Republicans, both parties are cozying up to the rich, just as in the robber baron days. "The social bases of both parties are basically the better off," says Poole, pointing to the controversy over the estate tax: the debate has been over how many millions of dollars should be exempt from the tax. Few if any have argued that large estates should be taxed more than they are now. "There is not a big constituency even in the Democratic Party for massive redistribution" of wealth and income.

Fifty years ago, Republicans and Southern Democrats were fiscally conservative, while Democrats thrived on the philosophy of tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect. But in the 1970s came supply-side economics. The Republicans had a new chant: cut taxes and cut taxes (mainly for the rich), watch the campaign money roll in, elect and elect.

Now, both parties are fiscally irresponsible. "I don't think either side can claim to be a steward of the treasury," says Poole.

He doubts that the public is getting aroused over excessive chief executive remuneration. "CEO pay is not a salient issue to most people," says Poole.

But Glen M. Broom, emeritus professor of communications at San Diego State University, thinks the pay gap is creating a crisis. "We have a socioeconomic status problem," says Broom. "We are creating a bipolar economic system; the middle class doesn't mean much anymore. I see signs that there is social conflict and that the social conflict is changing things within corporations." Broom is one of the authors of the long-standing gold standard of public relations texts, Effective Public Relations.

Eyeing polls and various studies, Broom concludes that the public is fed up with excessive executive pay, corporate accounting scandals, and greed that is all too evident in companies, as well as at nonprofits and universities. "Public opinion is like atmospheric pressure," says Broom. "You're not always aware of it directly, but it is having an impact. The public is aroused," and corporations and politicians will have to respond.

In any case, last week's election shows that the political balance is shifting. But after a short period of calm, the invective may intensify.

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