Our Representatives, Their Servants

The Growing Threat of Plutocracy
Wall Street in early February (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

Our democracy is under threat, and the threat did not begin with Donald Trump. Trump’s assault on our democratic norms and institutions is deeply disturbing and dangerous, to be sure. He claims with no proof that he lost the popular vote in the last election because of voter fraud. He has spoken little about Russian tampering with American elections, or about efforts in this country to establish rigid voter-registration requirements, often racist in intent. Like autocrats around the world, he has disdained the rule of law, firing the FBI Director James Comey, and threatening to fire the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. All this has been done with impunity in full view of the public. He has also appointed people to cabinet positions and other agencies who say they want to undermine the institutions they run, and they are doing so: Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education, Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mick Mulvaney at the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Trump has contempt for America’s immigrant legacy, and his administration has separated families seeking asylum in this country. He has spitefully overturned Barack Obama’s executive actions, including trying to end protection for undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors. The list goes on, of course. Let me add one more item: his constant lies about serious issues as documented by the Washington Post and other media outlets is a direct assault on a key foundation of true democracy, open and reasoned discourse.

But there are other threats to our democracy that are less immediately visible though just as grave. In Democracy in America: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It, Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens show that for a generation our lawmakers have not been responsive to the will of the majority. Their conclusion, based on surveys and statistical analysis, is “that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no influence at all on the making of federal government policy.”

Page and Gilens attracted attention a few years ago for an earlier academic paper that showed the excessive power of money on public policy and argued that the United States was fast becoming an oligarchy. This book is an expansion of that thesis. Prior research by political scientists had largely concluded that policies usually do follow the wishes of the public. But Page and Gilens used statistical techniques to separate the views of wealthy interest groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, and the American Medical Association. Their research shows that if 20 percent of middle-class Americans want a policy, they will get it about one third of the time. If 80 percent of the middle class want a policy, they will also still get it only about one third of the time. Americans with income that puts them in the top 20 percent have much more influence on policy, according to Page and Gilens’s analysis. If 80 percent of the well-off prefer a policy, it will become law more than half the time. The authors find that, when it comes to certain important issues, the concerns of the wealthy are very different from the concerns of everyone else. Fortunately, the views of average Americans coincide with those of the truly powerful just often enough to mollify the masses and prevent revolt. The authors call this “democracy by coincidence,” and they insist it is not good enough.

We all learned as children that the beauty of democracy is that it gives everyone an equal voice: the vote of a poor citizen counts as much as that of a rich one. It follows that the votes of two citizens, rich or poor, should count for more than the vote of one millionaire. But majorities favor gun control, environmental protections, higher taxes for the rich, and the expansion of Social Security; and Washington has ignored them. Page and Gilens present evidence that this problem is structural and persistent. Before reading their book, I believed that a generation of stagnating median wages for all and falling median wages for men were the main source of bitterness that put Trump over the top in the Electoral College. But the research of Page and Gilens suggests to me that frustration over the failure of our supposedly democratic government to respond to the general will may have been a key to the 2016 election. Many Americans are losing faith in the benefits of democratic procedures. And democracy seems increasingly under threat in other rich countries of the West.

Page and Gilens believe that the answer to American travails is “more democracy,” which they define as “policy responsiveness to ordinary citizens—that is, popular control of government. Or simply ‘majority rule.’” In my view, they are correct. This is a particularly important argument at a moment when dictatorial powers like China are impressing the world with their economic growth. Trump would apparently like less democracy, and is jealous of strong men like Putin and Erdogan.

 

Today, twelve states that together have just 4 percent of the U.S. population have twenty-four of the nation’s hundred senate seats.

The United States was designed by the founders not as a pure democracy but as a representative republic with natural checks on the potential tyranny of the majority, not least with the Bill of Rights. Page and Gilens acknowledge this. “In the Federalist Papers,” they write, “Madison argued that federalism in an extensive republic, together with separated, counterbalancing national institutions and severe limits on democratic control of each institution (at first only the House was directly elected) would protect individual Americans against government ‘tyranny’—tyranny pursued by anyone, even a popular majority.”

A government of checks and balances is designed to give any of the three independent and “equal” branches—the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary—the power to restrain the others. The Supreme Court, whose justices are not elected, has been given the final word on interpreting the Constitution. Moreover, anti-democratic norms have long been part of the American way. The lopsided representation of small states in the Senate is another legacy of early America, giving rural states more legislative power than their population warrants. Today, twelve states that together have just 4 percent of the U.S. population have twenty-four of the nation’s hundred senate seats. The oft-criticized Electoral College is another example of the founders’ skepticism about a true democracy. In almost all cases, a simple majority determines which candidates get all the electors allocated to each state. This system can lead to cases in which the winner of the popular vote loses the election, as it did in 2000 and 2016. And it was not until 1914 that U.S. Senators were elected directly by citizens rather than state legislatures.

But even the Founders’ insistence on checks and balances and their skepticism about the rationality of the masses can’t quite explain the consistent failure of lawmakers to act on the general will of the public in a few critical areas of policy. The Bill of Rights and Constitution’s checks and balances were intended to protect individuals and minorities against, as noted, a tyranny of the majority; they were not intended to produce today’s gridlock and inaction.

A prime example of the gridlock is Congress’s failure to agree on a budget, which led to a shutdown of the federal government in 1996 and 2013, and to extended battles again this year. As for the inaction, it can be quantified. In the 1950s, between eight hundred and a thousand new bills were enacted each year. In the early 2000s, that number fell to at most five hundred and, in recent years, to fewer than two hundred. Page and Gilens present two explanations for this trend: “clashes between our two sharply divided political parties [aided by rules that give the majority veto power] and obstructive actions by corporations, interest groups, and wealthy individuals.”

Survey after survey shows that the public decisively wants government action on gun control, global warming, and transportation infrastructure, and they are not getting it. A majority of voters believes the federal government should provide jobs to those who can’t otherwise find them. A majority wants Social Security benefits to be increased, not reduced. But in all these cases—and others that could be mentioned—public opinion seems to have little traction on Capitol Hill.

 

The poverty rate would be much higher today without food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and unemployment insurance. Medicare and Medicaid, housing subsidies, and progressive income taxes have all made America a more equal country.

Would “more democracy” really help dislodge us from our legislative impasse? Page and Gilens certainly think so, and I think they are generally correct; but in their enthusiasm they oversimplify public opinion. A majority of Americans may favor many beneficial policies, but do they really want more government in the aggregate? That question is harder to answer. The rise of neoliberal economic thinking since the 1970s has led more Americans to be distrustful of government interference. And those who propagate this way of thinking—at universities and think tanks or in the media—have been lavishly rewarded by wealthy right-wing donors such as the Koch Brothers.

The ’70s were ripe for a rightward shift. Difficult economic conditions impinged on Americans’ standard of living. Inflation began eating away at their purchasing power, while wages stagnated. The United States was no longer the world’s leader in income or social mobility. Americans resisted higher taxes and voted for candidates who promised the biggest tax cuts. That pattern has continued.

Page and Gilens believe that the health of this country’s democracy is critical to its future. The rise of progressive social policies in the past—from the Age of Jackson, to the Progressivism of the turn of the last century, to FDR’s New Deal—all succeeded in promoting more opportunity and fairness, as did the progressive reforms of the 1960s. It is fashionable to say that Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was a failure, but the poverty rate would be much higher today without food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and unemployment insurance. Medicare and Medicaid, housing subsidies, and progressive income taxes have all made America a more equal country.

But since the 1980s, as government has become less responsive to public opinion and less concerned with public welfare, income inequality has grown to staggering levels. Average wages (especially for men) have fallen, as incomes at the top have soared. Our child-poverty rate is among the highest in the developed world. Job-creating programs are virtually non-existent at the federal level. There is no required paid family or sick leave at a time when fewer parents can afford not to work. College—public or private—has become prohibitively expensive. Critical public investment in transportation, renewable energy, and more equal quality education is being neglected here while others nations, not least China, move forward. Meanwhile, according to the World Income Report, the American tax system has become less and less progressive since Ronald Reagan, who cut (progressive) income taxes while raising (regressive) payroll taxes.

Fortunately, as the authors point out, there are signs that Americans do still value government:

In a spring 2015 poll, for example, two-thirds of Americans declared that “the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among more people.” About the same proportion said the gap between rich and poor “needs to be addressed now.” Large majorities favored requiring employers to provide paid sick leave and paid parental leave; raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.00; raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year; and raising taxes on the sale of stocks or bonds. In a democratic political system, one might think that such popular policies would quickly become law. But they did not.

 

Page and Gilens, both experts on opinion surveys, blame this unresponsiveness on the growing place of money in politics. Rich Americans and business organizations “are opposed to paying more taxes themselves and uninterested in spending public money on programs to benefit average citizens.” The authors note that politicians who support policies that are generally unpopular with the rich have trouble even running for office, let alone winning, because political campaigns have grown so expensive. They say both Republicans and Democrats have been corrupted by money. The big donors to both parties tend to agree with each other—and to disagree with the average American—on such issues as “government budgets, international trade, social welfare spending, economic regulation, and taxes.” Several powerful business groups—including oil companies, defense contractors, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—regularly take stands opposed to what most Americans say they want.

By analyzing the history of nearly 1,800 laws, Page and Gilens have found that the more support a bill has from the well-off, the more likely it is to pass. Meanwhile, even overwhelming support from the non-rich has virtually no effect on a bill’s chances. The authors also show how much more business interests spend on lobbying than social-interest groups do. In 2012, for example, the average big association spent $625,000 a year while the average social-welfare group spent only $116,500.

The most recent big push for health-care reform furnishes the authors with a particularly useful example of how money influences lawmaking. The Affordable Care Act was originally supposed to include a “public option,” allowing ordinary Americans to buy their insurance directly from the government rather than from private-insurance companies. Needless to say, the private-insurance companies were opposed to this, rightly anticipating that the public option would be cheaper than the insurance products they sold for a profit. The House passed a bill in 2010 that included a public option. But a bill with the public option fell one vote short in the Senate, where a supermajority was required. Joseph Lieberman, an independent senator from Connecticut who usually voted with Democrats, was the deciding vote. There were seventy-two insurance companies headquartered in his state, and many of them had contributed money to his 2006 reelection campaign. After Lieberman effectively killed the public option, Democrats introduced new legislation that would have allowed Americans between the age of fifty-five and sixty-four to buy into the popular Medicare program. A large majority of Americans favored this idea; the insurance companies opposed it. Lieberman again voted no.

Using a 2011 Chicago survey of those in the top 1 to 2 percent of income earners, Page and Gilens show how different the views of the wealthy are from those of the average American. Overall, 87 percent of Americans agreed that the country should spend whatever is necessary for “really” good public schools, while only 35 percent of the wealthy did. Overall, 57 percent of Americans favored more government-financed worker training, compared to only 30 percent of the wealthy. Overall, 55 percent of Americans wanted to expand Social Security, compared to a stunningly low 3 percent of the wealthy.

The Supreme Court has amplified the political power of wealthy individuals and corporations. Surveys show that most Americans want strict limits on campaign contributions. Many would even like to see public financing of elections. But beginning in the 1970s, the Supreme Court began rejecting efforts to control campaign financing. Most famously, the high court ruled in Citizens United (2010) that corporate political contributions are an exercise in free speech. Page and Gilens argue that the judiciary has too often contravened laws that would protect democracy by limiting the power of corporations.

 

Only about 60 percent of eligible Americans vote in presidential elections. Only 40 percent vote in local elections. And poorer Americans vote less often than richer Americans.

But money is not the authors’ only concern. Certain features of our electoral system also undermine democracy. In addition to the imbalance of popular representation in the Senate and the Electoral College, brazen gerrymandering has insulated the House of Representatives from democratic accountability. Local legislators draw district boundaries in such a way as to exclude voters from the other party. Today this process is mostly controlled by state Republicans. The courts have blocked some of the most extreme gerrymandering, as in Pennsylvania. But Page and Gilens point out that, even without gerrymandering, most congressional districts are homogeneous. Black and Latino voters tend to be concentrated in the same localities, as do many white liberals. The authors argue that residential segregation, including self-segregation, is an even greater threat to democracy than gerrymandering.

Of still greater concern, however, is low voter turnout. Only about 60 percent of eligible Americans vote in presidential elections. Only 40 percent vote in local elections. And poorer Americans vote less often than richer Americans. In one study of five socio-economic groups (divided by income and education), 89 percent of the top group voted in presidential elections, while only 55 percent of the bottom group did. These numbers reflect a lack of confidence, especially on the part of low-income voters, in the democratic process itself. Those who could most use some help from the government are the ones most alienated from it.

Page and Gilens’s explanation of the many “veto points” in our legislative system is one of the most important contributions of this book. These are the rules that enable either a single legislator or a minority of legislators to block legislation. Consider, for example, the Senate. There a longstanding rule enables a senator to halt any nomination of someone from his or her own state to the executive or judiciary branches. The so-called hold rule gives individual senators—or a small group of senators working together—enormous obstructive power. When you combine this rule with the filibuster and the fact that every state has the same number of senators no matter what its population, the result is a very partial form of democracy. The House of Representatives, which was intended to be the more democratic of the two houses of Congress, has its own set of anti-democratic rules and norms. One, known as the Hastert Rule (after Dennis Hastert, former Speaker of the House) allows a “majority of the majority” to block a vote on any piece of legislation. This means that, in theory, only 26 percent of the House is needed to veto legislation. Page and Gilens claim that the proliferation of such veto points is the main reason so little gets done in Congress.

 

This book’s inventory of American democracy’s ailments can be exhausting and dispiriting. Some of these ailments are well known, but even these aren’t fully understood. In my view, one of government’s main responsibilities is to keep up with social, economic, and technological change. Strict originalist interpretations of the Constitution are plain silly in light of all the ways society has changed in the past two hundred years. Among these changes has been more educational requirements for jobs. This did not start in the 1980s but a century earlier, when basic numeracy and literacy were new requirements to work. America created a high-quality, free school system in response. Congress has passed some legislation to help students afford college in recent decades, but the cost of higher education has spiked dramatically during that period and funding for state universities has been gutted by cash-strapped legislatures. Or take another example: health care was fairly inexpensive two hundred years ago mainly because it was still rudimentary. There was little doctors could do for people with serious illnesses like heart disease, cancer, or bacterial infections. All that has changed for the better. But some of the miracles of modern medicine would be unaffordable if people had to pay for them out of pocket, the way people paid for medicine in the eighteenth century. Today most developed countries treat access to basic health care as a right, just as they treat access to basic education. But not the United States, where, even after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, millions of Americans still lack health insurance.

Page and Gilens profess optimism about the prospects of reform. The various Congressional rules, including the Hastert rule and the “hold,” as well as others, can be changed. The filibuster can be limited or eliminated. But will these changes be made any time soon? Campaign-finance reform is of course high on their list of things to fix. Some states have successfully adopted versions of public financing, such as Connecticut’s Clean Election program, which provides funding to candidates who agree to take no private money. This program helped Connecticut pass a sick-pay requirement for the state’s businesses. The authors hold out this example as a sign that things may be improving. But public campaign financing on a national level is still a long way off. Improving voter turnout would also make our system more democratic. Oregon has adopted a universal voter-registration program that could work on the federal level in a reform-minded America. Many argue that elections should be held on the weekend or a federal holiday, not on a work day. This relatively simple change could improve turnout markedly.

Democracy in America could have been better organized; parts of it are unwieldy and repetitive. Some of Page and Gilens’s statistical certainty has been challenged. But their general argument is persuasive—and damning. We should be at least as concerned about the homegrown dysfunction of our political system as we are about Russian meddling. The 2016 election did not so much break our democracy as remind us of the extent to which it was already broken, not by leaks and bots but by money.

 

Democracy in America
What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It

Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens
University of Chicago Press, $30, 352 pp.

Published in the September 7, 2018 issue: 

Jeff Madrick is the director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative at the Century Foundation and Editor of Challenge. His most recent book is Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Damaged America and the World (June 2017).

Also by this author
Government Is Not the Problem

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