[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
David Callahan, Host:
One of the maddening riddles of American life is why a country with an egalitarian ethos and the world’s oldest democratic system could allow itself to become a grossly unequal land of haves and have nots in recent decades – a society with a pattern of income distribution now closer to that of Brazil than, say, Germany.
Look no further for an answer to the riddle. This alarming new book by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson offers up perhaps the best explanation so far of how the U.S. got on the path to plutocracy.
The problem, say the authors, is not that unstoppable economic forces have conspired to siphon wealth upwards, with the lion’s share of income gains since the 1970s going to the top of 1 percent. Rather, Hacker and Pierson finger a different suspect entirely: a politics that systematically advantages wealth and privilege.
This exhaustively researched book is structured like a murder investigation, the victim in this case being middle class America. The authors consider and then dismiss the usual suspects who are blamed for inequality. In particular, they exculpate the role of skills and education – typically the principal villain in the inequality story. Hacker and Pierson also argue that the conservatism of Americans – and particularly the white working class – is not to blame, citing polls that show that most Americans are moderate and there has actually been no major rightward shift over recent decades. (A point they explicate in more detail in their 2005 book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy.)
The core of Winner-Take-All Politics revolves around an analysis of how politics really works, as opposed to how civic textbooks say it works. Against a backdrop of stunning public ignorance about the most elementary aspects of public policy – for instance, the authors note that only 55 percent of Americans knew the Republicans controlled Congress at the apex of the Gingrich era – Hacker and Pierson show how highly organized monied interests have taken over American politics. These interests have sought not just to keep taxes low on the upper class, with rates now at levels not seen since the 1920s. The hijacking of government has been harnessed to a far more ambitious agenda that has included destroying the U.S. labor movement, gutting any regulations that stand as an impediment to profit, enabling vast increases in executive pay, eviscerating the watchdogs that oversee Wall Street, and much more.
National inaction in the face of a stunning upward flow of wealth might be understandable if the middle class were doing fine. If this were a case of a rising tide lifting not just yachts, but all other vessels, maybe the mystery wouldn’t be so profound. But as we know – and as Jacob Hacker as shown in his other work, most notably The Great Risk Shift – that is far from the case. Even as the top 1 percent has reaped mind boggling income gains, the middle case has gotten slammed with a litany of woes: rising healthcare costs, growing pension insecurity, increased college tuition, and endless predation by a financial sector that has turned usury into a business model.
So why haven’t the masses revolted? Well, as Hacker and Pierson argue, politics is all about organization, and those organizations that used to channel middle class views into the political process have been either destroyed or compromised. Unions are virtually defunct, while the great civic associations of the past have largely disappeared. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has increasingly been penetrated by big money and long ago ceased to be a champion of working America.
This isn’t a happy story. If you believe the arguments of Winner-Take-All-Politics, America isn’t just on the path to plutocracy; it already is a plutocracy.
Still, one can’t help whether the authors have everything right. In particular, the role of ideology is under-explored in this book. Many scholars have argued that the American Dream ethos, which places the burden of economic success on the individual, is so deeply ingrained in America’s political and cultural DNA that it undermines public will to address economic inequities. Even in the face of obvious structural failures to deliver opportunity, or cabals of the rich to feather their own nests, Americans are apt to just blame themselves for their woes.
It seems that a truly comprehensive picture of what has gone wrong would give more attention to the interplay between the American Dream ethos and powerful business interests. Oligarchical actors have been brilliant at fanning deep-seated ideological currents in the U.S. to create a permissive climate for an upward redistribution of wealth and power. The current alliance between the Tea Party and the Koch brothers is a case in point.
A broader story would stress the need not just to change a politics that favors the rich, but also to change the minds of Americans who keep voting against their own interests.