Last week I mentioned that America’s elites are still having trouble digesting America’s anti-elitism, and I gave you some examples, and then, wanting to end on a hopeful note, I quoted one pundit who DOES get it, Nicholas Kristof.
Today I’m going to permit myself my first Andrew Sullivan moment: giving up my blog space to a Pulitzer-winning columnist who’s saying everything I’ve been saying, but better. In this case, that’s Nicholas Kristof, who, in his column for the New York Times yesterday, synthesized my sentiments and then some. Maybe he can see things some of his fellow elites can’t, since he grew up on a rural farm in Oregon.
Kristof didn’t get there first. I’ve been writing about populism on this blog every week for more than two years, with a few choice detours into some personal anecdotes. In other words, in the 18 months before Donald Trump declared his candidacy and went on to turn the American punditocracy upside-down, I was a lonely voice ringing a bell saying, “GUYS IT’S DIFFERENT THIS TIME. AMERICA IS REALLY ANGRY AND THE USUAL ESTABLISHMENT DEMOCRAT-REPUBLICAN TACTICS WON’T WORK.” And no one listened.
I’m not here to say I told you so. I’m here to let Kristof say it for me. Ha ha.
What I love best about the column below is that he goes right to the root of the issue: majorities of Americans are disenfranchised, locked out of policy decisions. No one wants a tyranny of the majority, but I don’t think the Founding Fathers wanted the body politic to be entirely ignored, either.
Kristof isn’t overly proscriptive, and regular readers understand that I’m not, either. As Kristof puts it below, “solutions are complex, imperfect and uncertain.” But we start by acknowledging that the hoarding of wealth by the 1% is America’s biggest problem. We start by asking about the majority’s under-representation in Congress. We start by asking about policies geared to the 1% at the expense of everyone else, and we continue by discussing policy changes geared to the 51% (including many where majorities of the people oppose both America’s major parties, e.g. the TPP, NSA spying, tax breaks for hedge funds and capital gains and moving overseas and a thousand other things, military overreach, prison reform, gun background checks, etc).
I’ll say it one more time (in previous entries, I’ve said this again and again and again): no one is advocating a tyranny of the majority, because no one is talking about taking away any rights. There are rights, and separately, there are policies. We the 51% simply want policies that reflect our will, considering this is supposed to be a goddamn democracy.
For example, people have a right to safe drinking water. So don’t tell me that after the 51% takes over, we’ll turn the 49% into the literally poisoned well of Flint, Michigan. That’s ridiculous alarmism, and dodges the issue of why politicians can ignore the majorities who elected them.
In some ways it gets back to Wal-Mart economics versus Costco economics, where the former would make slaves of their employees if it were legal, while the latter understands that paying a proper salary means that working-class people can actually SPEND and get the economy moving. Rich people don’t spend that money!
51%+ of us want – and in case you’re wondering, this hurts no one’s rights – money out of politics, as much as possible. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush don’t. That’s why the two candidates leading in the polls don’t take donations from, and aren’t beholden to, big fat-cat donors. Now, granted, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump don’t agree on a lot of other things, but they each represent imperfect avatars of our frustration with the kind of government fat-cat donors have supplied us for the last few decades. So one is an anti-billionaire and the other is a billionaire, big deal. If the elites keep dismissing the 51%, bedfellows are going to get stranger than this.
Okay, anyway, here’s the brilliant Kristof:
America the Unfair?
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders don’t agree on much. Nor do the Black Lives Matter movement, the Occupy Wall Street protests and the armed ranchers who seized public lands in Oregon. But in the insurgent presidential campaigns and in social activism across the spectrum, a common thread is people angry at the way this country is no longer working for many ordinary citizens.
And they’re right: The system is often fundamentally unfair, and ordinary voices are often unheard.
It’s easy (and appropriate!) to roll one’s eyes at Trump, for a demagogic tycoon is not the natural leader of a revolution of the disenfranchised. But the populist frustration is understandable. One of the most remarkable political science studies in recent years upended everything rosy we learned in civics classes.
Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University found that in policy-making, views of ordinary citizens essentially don’t matter. They examined 1,779 policy issues and found that attitudes of wealthy people and of business groups mattered a great deal to the final outcome — but that preferences of average citizens were almost irrelevant.
“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule,” they concluded. “Majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts.”
One reason is that our political system is increasingly driven by money: Tycoons can’t quite buy politicians, but they can lease them. Elected officials are hamsters on a wheel, always desperately raising money for the next election. And the donors who matter most are a small group; just 158 families and the companies they control donated almost half the money for the early stages of the presidential campaign.
That in turn is why the tax code is full of loopholes that benefit the wealthy. This is why you get accelerated depreciation for buying a private plane. It’s why the wealthiest 400 American taxpayers (all with income of more than $100 million) ended up paying an average federal tax rate of less than 23 percent for 2013, and less than 17 percent the year before.
Conversely, it’s why the mostly black children in Flint, Mich., have been poisoned by lead coming out of the tap: As Hillary Clinton noted Sunday in the Democratic debate, this wouldn’t have happened in an affluent white suburb. Lead poisoning permanently impairs brain development, but it’s not confined to Flint. Some 535,000 children across the country suffer lead poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those kids never have a chance — not just because of the lead, but also because they don’t matter to the American political system. American politicians are too busy chasing campaign donors to help them.
There are solutions — more about that in a moment — but a starting point is to recognize that this public mood of impotence and unfairness is rooted in something real. Median wages have stalled or dropped. Mortality rates for young white adults are rising, partly because so many self-medicate with painkillers or heroin. Blacks have been protected from this phenomenon by another unfairness: Studies indicate that doctors discriminate against black patients and are less likely to prescribe them painkillers.
America’s political and economic inequalities feed each other. The richest 1 percent in the U.S. now own substantially more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
Solutions are complex, imperfect and uncertain, but the biggest problem is not a lack of tools but a lack of will. A basic step to equalize opportunity would be to invest in education for disadvantaged children as the civil rights issue of the 21st century.
“I think any candidate seriously aiming to reduce inequality would have a mild increase in tax on the rich to fund higher school spending,” says Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford expert on inequality. I would add that investments in education should begin early, with high-quality prekindergarten for at-risk children.
We also need political solutions to repair our democracy so that ordinary citizens count along with the affluent. “There is no magic bullet that will set things right, but meaningful campaign finance reform must be at the center of a reform agenda,” Gilens says. “States and cities are leading the way. Arizona, Maine and Connecticut have had statewide, publicly funded ‘clean election’ systems for some time with varying degrees of success.”
One step toward transparency: President Obama could require federal contractors to disclose political contributions.
Right now, the bitterness at America’s grass roots is often channeled in ways that are divisive and destructive: at immigrants, say, or at Muslims. The challenge will be to leverage the populist frustration into constructive postelection policy. But it has been done before.
“Reforms were adopted in the first Gilded Age, an era similarly plagued by government dysfunction, political corruption and enormous economic inequality,” Gilens notes. “Perhaps they will be again.” For the sake of our country, let’s work for an encore.