What is Really Wrong with Government

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The Power of Ideas. Another way that well-off interests wield political influence is by affecting the way other people look at policy issues. Ideas, information, and analysis are important sources of political persuasion and power. They influence how we look at the world – how we see political issues, what problems are considered important, how political debates are framed, and which policies are considered justified. They are a vital form of intellectual ammunition in political fights. But here again, the competition in this area is not fair. Ideas, information and analysis are commodities – and those interests with more money can pay experts to produce more of these commodities. So this is yet another way that advantages in private financial resources are translated into advantages in political power. It is another way that the voices of affluent interests drown out the voices of average Americans.

Another article on this site, “The Anti-Government Campaign,” chronicles the ability of wealthy families and businesses to funnel billions of dollars into foundations, think-tanks, and universities – the main organizations that produce and promote the work of political intellectuals and policy experts. These intellectual investments produce two kinds of political payoffs. First, these efforts are very useful in lobbying policymakers. Members of Congress can only specialize in a few policy areas, and so they are often dependent on outside sources of information to inform their votes on many complex issues. Well-funded – largely conservative – think-tanks are more than happy to oblige. They provide a steady stream of detailed studies, expert testimony, and Congressional briefings that greatly aid the lobbying efforts of well-heeled interests like big businesses.

The other target of this intellectual barrage is public opinion. There is a concerted effort to shape the public’s ideas about what is desirable politically. If the public can be convinced, for instance, that “what is good for business is good for America,” this provides increased legitimacy for those seeking to roll-back regulations and cut business taxes. So a great deal of money has been spent on creating a sophisticated communications system that constantly promotes the ideas of conservative intellectuals and think-tanks to the public. Materials are sent to reporters on a daily basis and frequent guest commentators are provided to network news shows. Information and analysis are also funneled through right-wing political pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Fred Barnes who then disseminate these ideas through conservative cable news channels like Fox News, right-wing internet sites, and hundreds of national and local radio talk shows.

Vastly Unequal Citizens

So what does all of this add up to? Incredible imbalances in private and public power and a political playing field that is hugely uneven. A typical non-unionized worker has her one vote, but few other ways to influence policy. Her measly $25 campaign donation is lost in the avalanche of special interest contributions. She might write a letter to her Congressperson, but it will likely be drowned out by the organized letter-writing campaigns of large lobbies. In contrast, for a corporate executive, his vote is his least important political tool. He can have much more influence by donating thousands of dollars to political action committees as well as thousands more in individual donations to specific candidates – all working to increase the election chances of his favorite politicians. And his economic interests are also much better represented in the policymaking process by the many well-healed organizations that lobby for his firm and industry. Finally, our executive is more likely to have his political and policy ideas pitched to Congress by think-tank experts and espoused to the public by media pundits. So here we have two Americans, two citizens who are supposed to be political equals, but who have vastly different amounts of power. This mal-distribution of political power cannot help but have a corrosive effect on our democracy.

The Result: Policies by and for Affluent Special Interests

These imbalances of power produce a clear bias in the political system toward the interests of affluent individuals and businesses. Policymakers are more apt to listen to these interests and design policies with them in mind. Several recent studies have sought to gauge the political clout that various economic classes had over the decisions of politicians. One found that “senators are vastly more responsive to the views of affluent constituents than to the constituents of modest means.”16 In fact, if the poor and working class support a particular policy that means that senators are actually less likely to vote for it. Another empirical study of public opinion and policy found that “the American political system is a great deal more responsive to the preferences of the rich than to the preferences of the poor.”17 Finally, a study found that even if a majority of Americans supports a new policy, it doesn’t stand a good chance of becoming law unless it is also supported the well-off.18 Hardly surprising, but very disturbing none the less.

It is not hard to find specific policy examples of this political tilt toward the well-off. Tax policy is exhibit number one. In recent years, the public has not been citing tax cuts as one of their highest priorities. In fact, polls reveal that most Americans would now rather forgo more tax cuts and spend that money on areas like education and health care. And yet for over a decade, the Republican-dominated Congress continued to put tax cuts high on their legislative agenda. Such behavior by policymakers makes much more sense when it is understood that these cuts have disproportionately favored the rich and businesses – the very interests who have the dominant powerbase in our political system. It is hardly a coincidence that in the first year after the 2003 tax cuts, households making over $1 million were granted a gift of nearly $100,000 in tax cuts, while the average tax cut for a middle-class family was a paltry $217. Nor is it just a matter of luck that Congressional tax policies – under both Democrats and Republicans – have reduced the share of federal taxes paid by businesses from 20% of total federal revenue in 1975 to a mere 7% in 2003.19 One of the most blatant examples of elite power occurred in 2010, when the Republican Party refused to allow the extension of unemployment benefits to millions of jobless Americans unless the Democrats agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich. These are just a few examples of how tax policy has produced immediate and large pay-offs for the money that affluent interests have invested in buying political influence.

This current imbalance of financial and political power not only helps to explain what Congress does, but also what it does not do. It sheds light on why Congress is so slow to act on some serious problems – especially problems that are not of particular concern to the moneyed interests wielding the most power. Consider, for instance, the problem of unemployment. The recent deep recession has left record numbers of people without jobs. And millions who want full time work can only find part time jobs. But in the face of this unemployment crisis, Congress has largely sat on its hands and has done little to promote the creation of more jobs. Largely this is because the suffering of American workers is of little interest to the well-moneyed interests that dominate in our political system.

Or take health care policy. For many decades now, our health care crisis has been growing. Over 47 million Americans had no medical insurance. Employers were cutting back on coverage for their workers. Many middle-class families were being financially pressed by increasing medical costs. Financially strapped state governments began limiting access to Medicaid for many people living in poverty. The quality of medical care was highly uneven and we compared poorly to most other Western countries in terms of life expectancy and infant mortality. And yet in the face of all of this, Congress was reluctant to act in any vigorous or concerted way. For decades we remained the only Western democracy that did not provide some form of universal health care for its citizens. And all this despite consistent public support for major health care reform. By almost a two-to-one margin, Americans said they would rather scrap the current employer-based insurance system and replace it with a government program that would provide coverage for everyone. Three-quarters of Americans said that access to health care should be a right – not something available only to those who can afford it. And 67% said they would even be willing to pay more in taxes to make this universal coverage a reality.20 Still, until the election of President Obama, most members of Congress – both Democrats and Republicans – adamantly refused to promote such a universal plan. Why was that the case?

The answer had to do with the imbalance of political power that has been described here. First, health care reform was not a high priority for those who are well-off in society – they had no problem affording the best medical care. More importantly, there were powerful special interests who benefited from the current system and who diligently worked against any attempts to create a universal health insurance system. A sociologist, Jill Qaudagno, has written an insightful book about this problem entitled One Nation Uninsured: Why the U.S. Has No National Health Insurance.21 She showed how powerful private interests were able to block every effort in Congress to move toward a national health care program. In the 1960s, it was primarily physicians who torpedoed the attempt. In recent years, it has been insurance companies and employers. And even when health care reform was finally passed in 2010, the Republicans and their health care industry allies were able to block the most promising and wide reaching reform proposals, such as the single-payer government plan that has proved so successful in other Western democracies.

Needed: More Power to the People 

It hasn't always been the case that wealthy interests have so successfully dominated our political system. There have been times in our past when Congress rose up to pass broad-based policies that greatly extended economic equality, economic security, and economic opportunity among all citizens – legislation such as Social Security in the 1930s, the G. I. Bill in the 1940s, and Medicare in the 1960s. These egalitarian policies improved the lives of virtually all American families and are widely recognized as political and moral highpoints in American politics. But today these kinds of progressive bills would face a huge uphill battle in Washington, even with the Democrats in charge. Such efforts would be quickly attacked by powerful special interests, and condemned by most conservatives as expensive and wasteful “big government” programs that would only raise taxes. The shift in political power that has taken place toward well-off individuals and corporations has made it very difficult to pass these kinds of egalitarian policies.

It is this shift in power, not a shift in public opinion, which has created the right-ward swing toward more inegalitarian policies. Most Americans still support a broadly egalitarian political agenda – higher minimum wages, more help for the poor, most affordable higher education, and so on. What has changed is not public opinion, but the distribution of power. Most Americans back more government spending on health care and education, and more regulations that protect workers and the environment. Social programs, taxes, and regulations have been cut not because the public has demanded it, but because those with the most power have demanded it. As the APSA report concluded: “Interest groups and money are tools wielded disproportionately by a small segment of American citizens to enact policies that concentrate benefits on them and to block egalitarian policies...” That, in a nutshell, is the alarming policy result of the shift in political power that is undermining democracy in the United States.

Some people believe that electing more liberal politicians, like Barack Obama, will help to solve this deficit of democracy. It can't hurt. But a change in elected leaders can only do so much to address the undemocratic tendencies that have become deeply embedded in our economic and political systems. If we are to really remedy these problems, we need more basic reforms. To see what some of those reforms are, go to "How to Fix American Government and Revive Democracy."

 


1. Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol, eds., Inequality and American Democracy (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005) p. 8.

2. Ibid. p. 8.

3. Ibid. p. 25.

4. Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, “American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality,” American Political Science Association, 2004. This was later published in book form: Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol, eds., Inequality and American Democracy (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005).

5. Inequality and American Democracy, p. 1.

6. Inequality and American Democracy, p. 117.

7. Most of these economic facts and figures came from Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America, January 2006-2007. http://www.epinet.org/content.cfm/books_swa2006; and Inequality.Org, “How Unequal Are We, Anyway?” November, 2008. http://www.inequality.org/facts.html

8. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All-Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.

9. Inequality and American Democracy, p. 115.

10. These figures come from the website Open Secrets.Org, http://www.opensecrets.org

11. Open Secrets.Org.

12. Open Secrets.Org.

13. Kay L. Schlozman and John T. Tierney, Organized Interests and American Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1986, pp. 67-68.

14. Inequality and American Democracy, p. 116.

15. Schlozman and Tierney, Organized Interests and American Democracy, p. 66.

16. Inequality and American Democracy, p. 127.

17. Inequality and American Democracy, p. 127.

18. Martin Gilens, “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness,” Public Opinion Quarterly 69, no.5 (2005): 778-96/.

 19. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2004 ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Printing Office, 2004), p. 300.

20.This poll figures can be found in Ruy Teixeira, “Public Opinion and Universal Health Care,” The Emerging Democratic Majority web site, September 16, 2005. http://www.emergingdemocraticmajorityweblog.com/donkeyrising/archives/001291.php

21. Jill Quadango, One Nation Uninsured: Why the U.S. Has No National Health Insurance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

 

 

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