Today the United States faces a number of daunting problems. Economic inequality has reached levels not seen for a hundred years. While the wealthy keep piling up riches, many Americans are hurting from job losses, low wages, high health-care costs, and deteriorating public services. Whole communities have been devastated by factory closings. Our public schools are neglected. Our highways and bridges are in disrepair.
Well-designed government policies could help deal with these problems. Large majorities of Americans favor specific measures that would be helpful. Yet our national government often appears to ignore the wants and needs of its citizens. It pays more attention to organized interests than to ordinary Americans, and it gets bogged down in gridlock and inaction.
No wonder many Americans are angry and alienated. No wonder there have been populist rebellions on both the Left and the Right: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump.
In this book we argue that gridlock and inaction in Washington result from two main causes: clashes between our two sharply divided political parties and obstructive actions by corporations, interest groups, and wealthy individuals.
The many “veto points” in our complex political system (that is, the many opportunities for one or another political actor to thwart policy change) are used to prevent the enactment of policies that most Americans want. The nonresponsiveness and dysfunction of government are closely related to undemocratic features of our political system. Our laws and institutions make it hard for ordinary citizens to have an effective voice in politics. They permit corporations, interest groups, and the wealthy to exert a great deal of influence over what the government does. And they allow donors and highly ideological political activists to dominate the parties’ nominations of candidates for office, so that the two parties are pushed in sharply contrasting directions—contributing to gridlock.
Both parties often stray from what majorities of Americans want them to do. It follows that our problems can be more effectively addressed if we reform our political system to achieve more democracy: more equal opportunity for all citizens to shape what their government does and policies that better address the needs of all Americans.
If the political parties are democratized, for example, so that each of them is forced to appeal more to the voters and less to the party’s donors and activists, they will differ less sharply from each other. That will reduce gridlock. Both parties will be more responsive to the citizenry and more likely to adopt solutions that Americans favor for the problems we face. Similarly, if we reform elections so that all citizens have an equal voice, and if we mute the influence of political money and organized interests, public officials will more faithfully reflect what ordinary Americans want.
Again, if the Congress and other political institutions are reformed to represent all citizens equally, those institutions will be more harmonious—less prone to clashes with each other that result in gridlock—and more responsive to the citizenry as a whole.
Some impediments to democracy have been with us for a long time. Others have grown worse in recent years. But most, we think, are fixable.
In the course of American history, the health of democracy and the extent of economic equality have tended to rise and fall together. Each has affected the other. In the late nineteenth-century Gilded Age, for example, extreme inequalities of income and wealth—inequalities not unlike those that afflict us today—empowered the wealthy few and undermined democracy. Yet that same extreme economic inequality provoked protests and social movements, which in turn helped bring about reforms that advanced both political and economic equality.
Through such efforts, the United States has enjoyed periods of relatively democratic, harmonious, and effective government, and widely shared prosperity. We believe that we can once again enjoy more vigorous democracy and more widely shared prosperity, if enough citizens mobilize and work hard for effective reforms that promote both economic and political equality. The two types of reform go together. Each facilitates the other. Neither is likely to get very far alone.
In the following chapters we show precisely how undemocratic U.S. government policy making has become. We do our best to diagnose exactly what has gone wrong. Based on that diagnosis, we explain how certain specific political reforms could greatly increase democratic responsiveness. Finally, we explore how the formidable obstacles to reform might be overcome.
We define democracy as policy responsiveness to ordinary citizens—that is, popular control of government. Or simply “majority rule.”
This commonsense definition reflects the foundation of our Constitution in the will of “we the people of the United States.” It embodies the fundamental value of political equality, insisting that in a democracy all citizens should have an equal opportunity to influence the making of public policy. It reflects the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men (we would now say all human beings) are “created equal.”
It corresponds to Abraham Lincoln’s espousal of government “ of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Yet the fact is that this sort of “majoritarian” democracy—which is widely embraced by ordinary Americans—has been rejected by a number of political theorists and by many social and political elites. So we need to explain why we think majoritarian democracy is desirable.
ELECTIONS ALONE DO NOT GUARANTEE DEMOCRACY.
Some theorists have argued that all that is needed for democracy is elections that create a competitive struggle for citizens’votes. To us, however, a core element of democracy is political equality—an equal voice for each citizen. Just holding elections does not guarantee that citizens will have equal influence.
For example, even if we formally allow each adult citizen one and only one vote, some people may be left out because they are deterred or excluded from voting. (We will see that voters in the United States tend to be quite unrepresentative of the citizenry as a whole.) Other people may, in effect, get many votes—if they provide money or organizational support that is essential to running political campaigns and getting a party’s supporters to the polls. Moreover, election outcomes may not reflect the real preferences of the voters if the choices on the ballot are severely restricted. And policy may diverge sharply from the desires of the public if officials ignore those who elected them and pay attention to lobbyists instead.
One way in which elections can go wrong is if voters’ choices are circumscribed. A stark example: Iran’s Guardian Council, a twelve-member body of jurists and theologians appointed by Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” decides which candidates can get onto the ballot. In Iran’s 2013 presidential election, the Guardian Council disqualified the vast majority of would-be candidates—including all thirty women and the reformist former president. So even though many Iranians (72 percent of them) voted and could exercise a “free” choice among the six candidates on the ballot—and even though the winner of the most votes peacefully took office a few weeks later—we would not want to call that election democratic.
In the United States today, no body of theologians controls who can and who cannot run for office. Yet—as a result of much more subtle and indirect processes—we may actually have something like our own Guardian Council.
In today’s America, a relatively small, unelected set of people exerts a great deal of influence over who appears on the ballot and who has a realistic chance to win: those who supply the money. When the members of this group agree with one another, they have the power to determine that certain kinds of electoral choices are essentially off-limits for voters.
In our electoral system, private money plays a huge part. Neither major party can function without many millions of dollars. And the parties generally select their candidates in obscure, low-visibility primary elections, in which only a small, atypical set of voters participates. This process limits the influence of rank-and file voters. It empowers a few highly ideological activists, organized interest groups, and donors.
In this and many other ways, our system differs from those of most other advanced countries. Since Republican and Democratic activists and donors typically disagree sharply with each other about a number of issues, there are usually very real differences between Republican and Democratic candidates. But the megadonors of both parties tend to agree in opposing certain policies that most Americans favor. These include important policies related to government budgets, international trade, social welfare spending, economic regulation, and taxes (as will be discussed in chapter 4).
On these issues, big-money political donors can act rather like a Guardian Council. They can keep off the ballot candidates, ideas, and policies they disagree with, by giving or withholding the money that is needed to put on a serious campaign.
THE MONEY PROBLEM.
A crucial part of this picture is that both parties need enormous amounts of money, but—under our current system—that money mostly comes from a very small set of megadonors. In 2012, for example, a tiny sliver of the U.S. population—just one-tenth of one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans—provided almost half of all the money spent in federal elections. Even more remarkably, just 132 donors to huge political action committees (PACs) known as “super PACs,” giving an average of almost $ 10 million each, accounted for more money than all of the 3.7 million small donors to the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns combined.
It is extremely difficult to win a major government office without the backing of affluent campaign donors. The “preapproval” process by America’s “Guardian Council” of potential donors seems to be remarkably effective at screening out candidates who fundamentally disagree with the preferences of well-funded interest groups and well-to-do contributors. The result: U.S. government policy often reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.
To be sure, the 2016 “outsider” campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump seemed to demonstrate that—at least under certain circumstances—huge contributions from the usual millionaire and billionaire donors may not be necessary to compete. But of course Sanders did not win the Democratic Party nomination, let alone the general election.
Trump was an extremely unusual case: his celebrity and communication skills markedly lowered his campaign costs by giving him an enormous amount of free media exposure. And Trump had his own fortune to fall back on, if necessary, which also helped make him unusually independent of megadonors.
We will have much more to say in later chapters about the distorting effects of money in politics. For now, the main point is that we should not think about democracy in terms of the mere existence of elections. If we want true majoritarian democracy, what really matters is whether—and to what extent—ordinary citizens can control what their government does.
Elections can effectively ensure democratic control only if a representative set of citizens votes, and only if election outcomes are not excessively influenced by party activists, interest groups, or financial donors.
But do we want true, majority-rule democracy? Not everyone thinks so.
IS THE GENERAL PUBLIC WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO?
The most important objection to majoritarian democracy is that ordinary citizens may be too uninterested in politics, too ill informed, too capricious in their political opinions, too selfish, and too subject to demagoguery to have their views taken seriously. What if most Americans do not really know which public policies would be good for them or for the country? Why should we pay any attention to what they think?
In the nation’s early days, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton worried about alleged “extreme fluctuations,” “passions” and “temporary errors and delusions” of the public. Walter Lippmann bemoaned “stereotypes” or “pictures in [the] heads” of ordinary citizens, who (he said) often fail to comprehend world realities.
Subsequently, decades worth of polls and surveys have shown that most Americans are not much interested in or informed about politics. Again and again, many or most Americans have failed quizzes about basic political facts, such as which party controls the House of Representatives or how long a term senators have in office.
Most people have trouble identifying or locating foreign countries. Acronyms and abbreviations that are coin of the realm in Washington, DC—NATO, ICBM, MFN, and the like—are mysteries to many Americans.
Moreover, many Americans are confused or uncertain about exactly what kinds of government policies they favor or oppose. “Don’t know” responses to poll questions are fairly common, at least when survey researchers don’t make it too embarrassing to give them.
Repeated surveys of the same individuals over time have showed that their stated opinions about political issues tend to vary from one year to another—sometimes back and forth, for no easily discernable reason.
Researchers have talked of “non-attitudes”and have called into question the very existence of meaningful public opinion.
Right up to the present day, scholars continue to write that “widespread political ignorance” is a profound problem for democracy and (in effect) to counsel political leaders to pay no heed to what ordinary citizens say they want.
An important recent book on “democracy for realists” seems to cast doubt on the idea that the public has meaningful views that should shape government policy.
There are good reasons for low levels of political information, reasons that can be summed up in the phrase “rational ignorance.” Most people—unless they happen to enjoy being political junkies—have little reason to devote a great deal of time or energy to most political matters. To most people, work, family, and leisure are higher priorities than most aspects of politics. Why make a big investment in acquiring political information? Especially since the odds of one individual having a pivotal effect on a major electoral outcome are usually vanishingly small.
“Rational ignorance” notwithstanding, a few members of the public are indeed political junkies who enjoy learning about politics. And a larger portion are concerned with and knowledgeable about specific issues such as education, health care, or Middle East politics, depending on their particular occupations or interests.
Whereas most people lack clear preferences on most issues, many people do have informed views about the few issues that they care about most. And still more have general notions about what sorts of policies are likely to suit them.
Critics of democracy are certainly right that most individual Americans lack fully informed opinions about most issues. But it does not follow that the collective or aggregate, survey-measured policy preferences of all Americans—such as the percentages of Americans that polls show favoring or opposing various public policies—have the same characteristics as the preferences of a single typical individual. The notion that whole entities must have the same characteristics as their individual parts is a fallacy, known as the “fallacy of composition.”
THE STRENGTH OF COLLECTIVE POLICY PREFERENCES.
There is plenty of evidence that public opinion as a collective or aggregate phenomenon is very different, much more worth paying attention to, than the day-to-day opinions of a typical individual citizen. How can this be?
There are two main reasons. The first involves collective deliberation: a society-wide process in which experts and leaders debate public policies, their views are reported in the media, attentive Americans pick up cues from those they trust, and the attentive citizens communicate those views to their families, friends, and coworkers.
The second reason involves the aggregation process itself: when many uncertain expressions of opinion are combined into a collective whole (for example, into the percentage of Americans favoring a particular policy), random errors and uncertainties among individuals tend to get averaged out. Survey measures of collective preferences cannot overcome systematic, nonrandom errors (we will have more to say about that later), but they do cancel out random variations that occur in “doorstep” opinions offered to survey interviewers. In most cases, the results of well-designed surveys fairly faithfully reflect longer-term, underlying tendencies of collective opinion.
The process of forming collective opinions about politics is akin to the processes that tend to make verdicts by twelve-person juries, or market judgments by thousands of consumers or investors, much more reliable than the opinion of a typical individual. Each is an example of what can be called the “wisdom of crowds.”
Most Americans do not devote a great deal of thought to politics. But they do have easy, direct access to some information that is highly relevant to public policy: the size of their Social Security checks; what is happening to their jobs and wages; the (perhaps crumbling) condition of roads they drive on; price rises or declines in grocery stores or at gasoline pumps. On some of these day-to-day pocketbook concerns—and on such matters as neighborhood crime, the challenge of holding down a job with no paid sick leave, the difficulty of finding affordable child care, or the (un) reliability of public transportation—ordinary Americans may actually have better firsthand information than elites who live more rarefied, sheltered lives.
When it comes to many abstract, complex, or distant matters, however—including precisely what sorts of public policy might be best for reducing layoffs and wage cuts, or for curbing price inflation, improving air quality, or avoiding war casualties—collective deliberation becomes crucial.
Experts debate the merits of alternative public policies. Commentators and politicians express their views through various media. A set of relatively attentive citizens—without having to memorize a lot of facts—can figure out what sorts of policies are favored by leaders whom they trust to have expertise and to share their own values. (This works only if such leaders exist, can be heard, and deserve the trust bestowed upon them.) Attentive citizens adopt those policy preferences for themselves, and—again without needing to learn or recite a lot of facts—communicate them to friends, families, and coworkers who also share similar values. As a result, most Americans—on most major issues—are able to form a general idea about what they want the government to do. They develop underlying tendencies of opinion. When the uncertain beliefs and opinions of millions of people are combined, the random noise is reduced.
Collective preferences tend to be solid. They tend to reflect the underlying needs and values of the whole body of citizens, in light of the best available information from experts and commentators. This is not just a theory. It is supported by evidence drawn from close examination of Americans’ actual collective policy preferences, as expressed in many polls and surveys conducted over many years.
An exhaustive study of thousands of survey questions that had been asked over a fifty-year period found that Americans’ collective policy preferences do not in fact suffer from the alarming defects that are often attributed to them. “Violent fluctuations” in collective opinion are a myth. The proportions of Americans favoring or opposing a given policy generally stay stable over time, except that they react in sensible ways to such big events as an armed attack or a nuclear reactor meltdown. And they gradually change to take account of new realities or new information. As unemployment declines, for example, public support for unemployment assistance declines as well; when tax rates are lowered, public support for tax cuts declines.
Americans as a group make many definite distinctions among policies (for example, which countries should receive economic aid; under what conditions abortions should be allowed; which kinds of assistance to the poor should be expanded or curtailed). Collective policy preferences are generally coherent: they are seldom inconsistent or mutually contradictory.
Well-designed polls and surveys typically do a good job of revealing collective policy preferences that reflect the worldviews, values, and interests of the average American. In a word, public opinion is generally deliberative—it generally reflects the best available information and the values and interests of the citizenry. It does so not because most individuals are deliberative or aware of the best information but because individuals form their opinions through a collective social process that brings deliberation and information to bear on the issues of the day.
We need to add certain caveats. First, poll results—especially those based on confusing, biased, or inept questions—have to be interpreted with care. But even poorly worded questions, properly interpreted, can often help reveal the contours of collective opinion. Another problem is that tabulated poll responses can underrepresent the interests of respondents who are uncertain and give arbitrary answers or say “don’t know.” Such effects (which, however, are not generally large) should be taken into account when possible.
The more important caveat is that collective opinion sometimes does not reflect the best available information because individuals’ errors do not always “cancel out.” This is particularly true if systematic misinformation is fed to many Americans at once and is not effectively contradicted. Examples include “fake news” transmitted by social media or misleading claims about events abroad (e.g., alleged “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq) by presidents or executive branch officials who have a near-monopoly on intelligence sources.
Our view is that successful manipulation of public opinion is not common, at least not concerning the domestic policy issues that we focus on in this book. On such issues, personal experience and competing elites can usually be counted on to help people figure out the truth.
In later chapters, however—when we describe concrete policies that majorities of Americans favor, and advocate that the public’s wishes should be heeded—we need to be alert for any cases in which public opinion may have been manipulated or misled. As a general matter we believe that the expressed preferences of the American people deserve much more respect from policy makers than they currently get. Respect does not mean slavish adherence. The public is certainly not infallible, and majorities are sometimes shortsighted or misguided in ways that policy makers must try to recognize and resist. But in most cases, we believe that majority rule—even when we ourselves happen to disagree with the majority—tends to produce public policies that benefit the largest number of people and promote the common good.
We believe that more democracy in the United States today would yield better policies: “better” in the sense that they would advance the interests and preferences of more Americans.
This conclusion is strengthened when we consider the rather bleak alternatives. Who, exactly, should rule if the people do not? Most modern societies have, for good reasons, rejected rule by hereditary monarchs, landed gentry, dictators, party cadres, or theocrats. Even rule by the best-educated, most successful Americans—if it could somehow be arranged—would suffer from serious flaws.
Our political and economic elites—who have recently stumbled into costly and futile wars, neglected economic inequality and wage stagnation, caused devastating financial crashes, and snarled up the functioning of government—appear to suffer from their own defects of judgment. Our wealthiest elites, though highly educated and knowledgeable about many things, often seem to know or care rather little about the needs of ordinary citizens. (We will have more to say about this in chapter 4, when we discuss the enormous political clout wielded by wealthy Americans.)
In short: citizens are not perfect guardians of their own values and interests. But they are pretty good guardians. And they are the best we are likely to find.
WHAT ABOUT MINORITY RIGHTS?
Even if majority rule does good things for most citizens, a serious problem remains: how to protect minorities. We are not much moved by Madison’s fear that the masses might use democratic control of government to seize property from a well-to-do minority, through such “wicked schemes” as the printing of paper money.
In our view, U.S. history and, in recent years, survey data have demonstrated that most Americans have no desire to confiscate the property of the wealthy. They have never come close to doing so. In fact, wealthy Americans have been highly successful at resisting or rolling back even mildly redistributive threats to their property, such as the progressive income tax.
But other minorities—especially racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and those who have distinctive political interests or hold unpopular views—deserve protection. Surely Madison, the French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville, and others were right that under certain circumstances (fear of terrorism comes to mind), majorities can threaten the rights and interests of minorities who live in their midst.
We are not absolutist democrats. We accept the desirability of providing minorities with special protections in case majorities of Americans might want to use the power of government against them. We believe the framers of the U.S. Constitution were wise to append a Bill of Rights, including protection for freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and the press; guarantees of due process; and protection against arbitrary arrest or unreasonable searches and seizures—all provisions that help safeguard minorities from unfair treatment.
The tricky part is how to guarantee that these freedoms are actually protected. The record of the U.S. Supreme Court is mixed, at best. Until relatively recently the court did little or nothing for enslaved or abused African Americans and Native Americans. It has frequently permitted harsh treatment of political dissenters, especially during wartime—or amid foreign policy crises or “red scares.”
As recently as World War II (1939–45), the Supreme Court went along with the shameful incarceration of Japanese Americans in prison camps, without any evidence that they represented a threat. The court swims in the same political sea as the rest of us. It cannot always be counted on to protect minorities whom majorities of Americans are willing or eager to oppress.
Still, we cannot think of a superior system of legal protection. The Supreme Court and the Constitution—helped along by vigilant civil liberties lawyers—are probably the best we can do. But we believe that minorities should also be protected in ways that go beyond bare-bones constitutional rights. As we will note in our discussion of democratic reforms of the U.S. Senate, it is worth maintaining certain institutional protections for minorities of any sort who hold intense political views.
Even the much-despised filibuster, if properly reformed, might be turned into a tool for preventing unjust government actions against minorities—instead of preventing action of almost any kind, as it does now. But that is a topic for a later chapter.
How This Book Unfolds
In the next chapter we note certain patterns in American history, from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1830s onward. Democracy has tended to flourish in times of relative economic equality but has withered when there are big gaps between rich and poor. Yet periods of very high economic inequality have sometimes provoked social movements that have fought for and won amelioration of both economic and political inequality. (The same thing may be starting to happen today.)
In part 2 of the book we examine more closely what has gone wrong and what is obstructing democratic responsiveness now.
Chapter 3 shows how undemocratic the United States is today. Ordinary citizens have little or no influence on public policy, while affluent and wealthy Americans and organized interest groups—especially business groups—often get their way.
When large majorities of Americans want policy changes that would improve their jobs, wages, retirement pensions, or health care—or that would combat climate change, reduce gun violence, improve public schools, or rebuild bridges and highways—they are often thwarted by gridlock and inaction.
In chapter 4 we examine just how much political clout wealthy Americans have (a great deal), what techniques they use to exercise it, and what sorts of government policies they want and get.
Chapter 5 documents the substantial political influence of organized interest groups and explains how they exercise it. Corporations and business associations do particularly well, while “mass-based” groups have relatively little clout.
Chapter 6 explores the vexing problems of highly polarized political parties, gridlock, and policy inaction. It discusses how polarization has increased with geographical and racial realignments, demographic and economic changes (especially the great increase in economic inequality), and certain features of our electoral system. It notes how polarization interacts perniciously with our separation of powers and our multiple “veto points” to produce gridlock and inaction.
We then turn, in part 3, to the question of what sorts of political reforms might be effective for making government policies more responsive to ordinary citizens.
Chapter 7 discusses a number of “equal voice” reforms that would move all citizens toward equal political influence. Campaign finance regulation—or (even without such regulation) public funding—could greatly reduce the power of private political money. Other reforms could curtail the impact of interest groups. Still others could encourage voting by citizens who are currently not well represented in the electorate—especially lower-income people and racial and ethnic minorities.
Chapter 8 considers how to overcome policy gridlock and, more generally, how to make our political institutions more democratic. It notes undemocratic features of Congress that our legislators could easily improve if they felt sufficient pressure to do so. It also discusses undemocratic electoral arrangements that will be harder—but far from impossible—to change. And it mentions certain particularly difficult but important-to-address problems, including the extremely unrepresentative, rural-heavy nature of the Senate, and the tendency of the Supreme Court to overturn (without, in our opinion, sound justification) certain policies backed by large majorities of Americans.
Part 4, the final section of the book, addresses the difficult question of whether and how major democratic reforms can actually be enacted. Big obstacles stand in the way, especially the need to persuade, pressure, or replace officials who have been elected in an undemocratic system and would be happy to keep it that way.
Major changes will likely take a long time and a lot of work. But we are optimistic that they can be achieved.
Chapter 9 addresses the idea of a social movement for Democracy. Some important improvements can be accomplished through simple changes in rules or laws that policy makers might be pushed to adopt through conventional political pressure. Ultimately, however, we believe that the most important major reforms can probably be won only by means of something new: a large-scale, long-term social movement for Democracy.
The chapter draws lessons from past social movements—especially the Populists, the Progressives, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement—to suggest what sorts of strategies and tactics might lead to success. And it points to groups that are already beginning to work together toward democratic reforms and might help form the core of a Democracy movement.
Chapter 10 highlights democratic reforms that are currently being achieved on the state and local level. By building on these efforts, we believe that a successful social movement for more Democracy can eventually transform America, enhancing both the quality of our politics and the quality of our lives.
Now we turn to concrete discussions of what has gone wrong and what we can do about it.
Unequal Wealth Distorts Politics
“Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions. . . . The social state of the Americans is eminently democratic. It has had this character since the birth of the colonies; it has it even more in our day. . . . It is of the very essence of democratic governments that the empire of the majority is absolute . . . there is nothing that resists it.” ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America, 1831.
To understand what has gone wrong with American democracy, it is helpful to look back at how our economy and our politics have changed since the early days of the United States. One historical pattern stands out. Economic inequality—the concentration of wealth and income in a few hands, with a big gap between rich and poor—has risen and fallen at various times.
And democracy—popular control of government—has tended to move in the opposite direction. When citizens are relatively equal, politics has tended to be fairly democratic. When a few individuals hold enormous amounts of wealth, democracy suffers.
The reason for this pattern is simple. Through campaign contributions, lobbying, influence over public discourse, and other means, wealth can be translated into political power. When wealth is highly concentrated—that is, when a few individuals have enormous amounts of money—political power tends to be highly concentrated, too. The wealthy few tend to rule. Average citizens lose political power. Democracy declines.
This pattern underlies a key theme of this book: that the extreme economic inequality afflicting the United States today is a major cause of our loss of democracy. Only if we reduce economic inequality—and/ or break the links between money and political power—can we hope to make our government responsive to the citizenry.
In this chapter we take a quick look at the historical relationship between economic inequality and political inequality in the United States.
When Americans have been relatively equal economically—as they were in the early years of our country and were again during our post–World War II “golden age”—democracy has generally flourished. But when the gaps between the rich and everyone else have grown too great—as in the Gilded Age of the 1890s and again during recent decades of low, stagnant wages for most Americans but soaring wealth at the top—democracy has suffered.
American history also shows, however, that we are not helpless in the face of impersonal forces that exacerbate economic inequality. Public policy matters. At several key moments in American history, extreme economic inequality has led to anger, protests, social movements, and government action to remedy the situation. Average citizens, working together, have been able to make important strides toward moderating economic inequality and enhancing democracy.
Tocqueville’s Relatively Equal America In 1831, when the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited the newly founded United States, he was deeply impressed by the high level of economic and social equality among Americans. He was also struck by the extent to which government policies—especially in the states—were responsive to the will of the majority of citizens. He called the majority “omnipotent” and declared that nothing could resist it. F
rom today’s vantage point, the America of the 1830s was certainly no utopia. Equality and democracy were far from complete. As Tocqueville was well aware, the slave system in the South treated most African Americans as property, exploited their labor, deprived them of personal freedom, and excluded them from any voice in politics.
Women were stuck in a patriarchal society, with subordinate status and no right to vote. Native Americans were being driven from their lands, conquered, and killed—under the leadership of (among others) the democratic hero Andrew Jackson. No utopia, for sure.
Still, among white males, equality and democracy were indeed highly advanced during the Jacksonian period—much more so than in any European country at that time, and much more so than in the United States today. In the 1830s many white male Americans were farmers who owned a small piece of land and grew or raised their own food. These farmers, along with craftsmen and small merchants who lived in towns and cities, enjoyed fairly similar standards of living and had much the same modest levels of wealth.
Only a few big merchants, manufacturers, and (especially) Southern plantation owners stood out as notably more affluent, while slaves and landless urban laborers stood out as deprived.
Economic historians calculate that U.S. inequalities of income and wealth were substantially lower in Tocqueville’s time than they are today—though there was a sharp distinction between the highly equal North and the very unequal South, and much depends on how the calculations treat slaves.
For the country as a whole in 1810, if one considers only the free (nearly all white) population, some estimates indicate that the top 1 percent of wealth holders owned less than 15 percent of all the wealth, much less than the 35 percent figure for the United States in 2010.
Consider those numbers for a moment. Today, 1 percent of Americans hold fully one-third of all the wealth in the country. The distribution of wealth in early nineteenth-century America was much more equal than today. Indeed, it was much more equal than in most other times and places. If slaves—who owned virtually nothing—are included in the population, and if the market value of slaves is attributed to their owners (a grim but useful calculation), Tocqueville’s America looks considerably less egalitarian—but still more equal than Europe at that time or the United States now.
Much the same was true of incomes. In colonial times (and presumably in the Jacksonian period as well), U.S. incomes were distributed much more equally than those in England or Holland, and much more equally than in the late nineteenth-century United States.
THE RISE OF DEMOCRACY IN THE UNITED STATES.
As to politics, we cannot be sure exactly how responsive the state or federal governments were to citizens in the 1830s. (There were no opinion polls to tell us which policies citizens favored or opposed.) But the judgment of most historians, bolstered by evidence on voting turnout and other matters, is that among white men, American politics were in fact relatively democratic in the age of Jackson.
In the earliest years of the United States, the right to vote had been severely restricted. The U.S. Constitution provided direct elections only to the House of Representatives. Presidential candidates were to be proposed and winnowed down by “electors,” who were chosen “in such manner as the [state legislatures] may direct”; House congressional delegations were expected to do the final picking of presidents. Senators were chosen “by”(emphasis added) state legislatures, and Supreme Court justices were appointed. Only a small minority of Americans could vote at all. The states controlled voting qualifications.
Most states allowed only white males who were owners of substantial amounts of property to vote, and some states imposed religious or other qualifications as well. As a result, in 1790 only about two-thirds of adult white men—and few others—were legally eligible to vote. And far fewer did so.
By 1828, however, when Andrew Jackson won his first term as president in an outburst of popular participation, presidential and House elections had become more democratic. All but two states let their voters choose presidential electors, who were generally pledged to back a particular candidate—in effect allowing citizens a more or less direct vote for president. And more white males could take part.
Several of the original states had loosened their voting restrictions, and many new, more democratically oriented states had joined the union, so that in 1830 only eight of the then-total twenty-four states imposed property requirements for voting.
Levels of voting turnout rose markedly. Turnout for the first election for the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1788—as a proportion of the people who were potentially eligible to vote in terms of their age, sex, race, and citizenship—was only about 12 percent, an astoundingly low figure. It rose to 38 percent by 1812 and, after a decline, jumped up to about 56 percent in Jackson’s two elections of 1828 and 1832.
The establishment of political parties and active campaigning made a big difference, by offering citizens choices and mobilizing them to get to the polls. The highly democratic society that Tocqueville observed reflected strong popular mobilization for the 1828 election, when frontiersman and military hero Andrew “Old Hickory”Jackson of Tennessee, and his key ally, Martin Van Buren of New York, assembled a broad political coalition drawn from much of the Northeast, South, and West.
A sophisticated party committee worked with Van Buren’s congressional caucus in Washington, DC, to set up state campaign committees, local Hickory Clubs, and a vigorous network of partisan newspapers around the country. Rallies, parades, and get-out-the-vote efforts delivered a large, enthusiastic popular vote for Jackson, who defeated the incumbent president, John Quincy Adams.
In office, Jackson set a tone for popular democratic control of government. His inauguration brought an outpouring of people from hundreds of miles around Washington, who lined the route to the Capitol.
Jackson opened his White House reception to citizens of modest background, who were scornfully described by a society matron as “a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping. What a pity, what a pity.”
Conservative Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote to his wife that “the reign of KING MOB seemed triumphant.”
At least in electoral and symbolic terms, then, the American politics of Tocqueville’s time were relatively democratic.
Inequality after Tocqueville As the nineteenth century proceeded, however, the relatively equal, small-farm, agrarian America of Tocqueville’s time turned into something else. Settlers moved West. Millions of immigrants arrived from Ireland, Germany, and then southern and eastern Europe. The U.S. population doubled, doubled again, and then nearly doubled once more, from thirteen million in 1830 to ninety-two million in 1910.
Millions of people moved into big cities. While agriculture continued to expand and move westward, manufacturing surged, with more and more big mills and factories coming into existence, owned by wealthy individuals and—increasingly—by large corporations. Economic productivity soared. The United States launched into a post–Civil War “special century” of rapidly increasing standards of living. Railroads and (later) automobiles provided swift transportation. Electricity lit up people’s evenings and later began to power remarkable new consumer appliances. The telegraph, telephone, and national newspapers (and, in the twentieth century, radio and television) revolutionized communications. Nutrition, medical care, and life expectancies all improved.
At the same time, however, millions of urban workers suffered from dismal living and working conditions, while the owners and managers of big businesses thrived. Inequality of wealth and income grew markedly.
In a prescient chapter on “How Aristocracy Could Issue from Industry,” Tocqueville himself foresaw that industrialization and economic development might well undermine the high level of equality that he had observed among Americans. Increased division of labor would do it. Workers, he said, become “weaker, more limited, and more dependent,” while very wealthy men come forward to exploit industries.
“At the same time that industrial science constantly lowers the class of workers, it elevates that of masters.”
Yes, indeed. As industrialization proceeded, the U.S. population became more and more sharply divided between a few very wealthy captains of industry and millions of low-wage workers.
During the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, inequality of income and wealth reached extreme heights. Government policies that placed the interests of businesses above those of citizens, along with Supreme Court decisions that rejected progressive taxation or regulation of business, contributed to economic inequality.
Extreme economic inequality, in turn, created a wealth-dominated, undemocratic politics. The English scholar James Bryce, who retraced some of Tocqueville’s steps in the 1870s and 1880s (and wrote a lengthy tome on American government) found that the inequality of material conditions in the United States had become greater than that of Europe. The United States had more “gigantic fortunes” than anywhere else in the world and a remarkable “crowd of millionaires.”
By 1910, the top 10 percent of U.S. wealth holders owned the vast bulk—fully 80 percent—of all the wealth in the country.
That left only 20 percent of the wealth to be divided among the whole other 90 percent of Americans. Nearly half of all the wealth (45 percent of it) was owned by the top 1 percent of Americans.
Americans’ annual incomes were quite unequal as well. The top 1 percent of U.S. income earners got almost one-fifth of all the income in 1910, and almost one-quarter of it at the end of the 1920s.
These numbers are worth thinking about. They imply big differences between the lives of people at the top and everyone else.
During the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century that laid the groundwork for those early twentieth-century economic disparities, the huge, unregulated “trusts” that dominated many industries extracted monopolistic prices from consumers and paid enormous profits to stockholders. Meat-packers sold adulterated food. Rapacious railroads charged farmers exorbitant rates to ship their grain to market. Workers labored long hours for low wages. Even professionals and people running small to-middle-size businesses resented the conspicuous consumption of the “plutocrats.”
An emblem of Gilded Age excess was Cornelia Bradley Martin’s lavish Waldorf-Astoria costume ball in the midst of the depression of 1897. While many Americans were struggling to make ends meet, six to seven hundred wealthy New Yorkers joined Cornelia—who was dressed as a queen and greeted her guests from a raised dais under a canopy of rare tapestries—to display their jewels, silks, and brocades, and to enjoy the Versailles-like scene of mirrors and tables laden with food.
THE DECLINE OF DEMOCRACY.
The extreme economic inequality of the Gilded Age brought with it a high degree of political inequality. Democracy declined. “Muckraker” journalists wrote of the “treason of the Senate”; they showed that key senators were on the payrolls of wealthy bankers or industrialists and did the bidding of their employers.
The Senate became a graveyard for popular reforms. In an eerie foreshadowing of today’s politics, wealthy individuals, business firms, and institutional gridlock combined to prevent Congress from passing laws that large majorities of Americans undoubtedly wanted them to pass.
The decline in democracy was also manifested in a sharp decline in voter turnout. After the pivotal election of 1896—in which the industrial conservatism of William McKinley decisively defeated the agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan—a series of changes in election laws curtailed citizens’ participation: new, onerous requirements for personal registration; disenfranchisement of working-class immigrants; barriers against party labels on ballots or party mobilization of voters. (Many of these “reforms”were supported by Progressives, who sought to reduce corruption and shift power away from the wealthy toward middle-class professionals, not ethnic urban masses.)
Also, voters were discouraged by a narrowing of political choices under the business-dominated politics of the day. The high, 80 percent or so presidential-election turnout levels of most of the nineteenth century fell sharply, to just 59 percent in 1912.
THE REBIRTH OF EQUALITY AND DEMOCRACY.
The extremely high levels of economic and political inequality during and after the Gilded Age were eventually moderated, however. Inequality itself provoked protests and social movements that pressed for reforms and—after a long struggle—enjoyed considerable success.
The Populist and Progressive victories of the early twentieth century (which are discussed further in chapter 9) included two fundamental democratic reforms: direct election of U.S. senators (rather than selection by corrupt state legislators) and the right of women to vote. They also brought more popular participation in party nominations; government regulation of business monopolies; limits on long working hours and bad working conditions; and the beginnings of a progressive federal income tax.
After a relapse into economic and political inequality during the 1920s, the Great Depression led to the political mobilization of millions of citizens and to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of the 1930s, which more closely regulated business, imposed more progressive income taxes, and provided social welfare programs including Social Security.
Most important for reviving democracy, the New Deal facilitated the organization of workers into unions that could mobilize their members and exert countervailing power against business.
New Deal policies, together with the economic leveling effects of World War II and its aftermath, produced a “great compression” (much more equality) of income and wealth and a substantial restoration of democracy.
THE “GOLDEN AGE.”
For a period of twenty to thirty years after World War II (from about 1946 to 1973)—which is sometimes referred to as a “golden age,” though it was certainly not golden in every respect—income and wealth were much more widely shared. By 1950, the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent of wealth holders had fallen from 45 percent to 30 percent. The income share of the most affluent Americans was also down markedly from the late-1920s peak.
As the economy grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s, the American Dream seemed realizable. Average workers could expect ever-increasing prosperity for themselves and their children. Real incomes were doubling each generation. Living standards soared. The most economically successful Americans did not seem to be impossibly far ahead; one could imagine that—with hard work and luck—one might possibly join them.
As to democracy: we cannot be sure exactly how responsive to the citizenry the federal government was during the 1950s. (Available survey data are too scanty to judge how well public policies reflected citizens’preferences.) But indications are that policy making was much more democratic during the Eisenhower administration (1953–61) than it is today. Certainly the political parties were less polarized; there was more bipartisan cooperation, less gridlock, more legislative accomplishment—including clearly popular measures like the development of the interstate highway system and the maintenance or expansion of a number of social programs.
Today’s Explosion of Inequality
Then, in the 1970s, things began to go badly wrong. Already during the golden age, other countries had started to undermine the global economic dominance of the United States. Germany and Japan recovered from the ravages of World War II and built vigorous new economies. Volkswagens and then Hondas began to undersell Detroit cars in the U.S. market, and inexpensive Japanese electronic goods began to appear on our shelves.
Suddenly, in 1973–74, an embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) doubled the price of oil. Wages, salaries, and the U.S. economy as a whole stagnated, while prices rose. At first nearly all Americans suffered. Then the wealthiest began to leap ahead while nearly everyone else stayed stuck, and a period of sharply rising inequality began.
WAGE AND INCOME STAGNATION AMONG AVERAGE AMERICANS.
American workers’ wages stopped rising. Since 1973—including many years of substantial economic growth—median hourly wages have barely risen at all. (Half of all workers earn more than the median, while half earn less. The median wage tells more about typical workers than does the mean or average wage, which can be misleadingly high because of a few extremely high-wage earners. If Bill Gates walks into a bar, the “average”income of the customers jumps way up in terms of the mean, but there is little or no effect on the median income, nor—unless Gates buys the drinks—on anybody’s actual welfare.)
Even now, median wages remain stuck around $16 per hour, where they have been (in “real,” inflation-adjusted terms) ever since the early 1970s. Wage stagnation is a fundamental feature of contemporary America.
For a while, family incomes (though not necessarily families’well-being) did a bit better than wages, but only because more family members began working harder and for longer hours. And soon family incomes stagnated too. Between 1947 and 1979, in terms of real dollars, the total incomes of American families in the bottom two thirds of the income distribution more than doubled. But since 1979, they have stayed nearly flat.
Pundits and pontificators sometimes attribute this wage and income stagnation to workers’ alleged lack of skills or effort. Nonsense. American workers did not suddenly lose their ambition, their energy, or their skills at the end of the golden age. They continue to work hard and work well. Their productivity rose markedly for many years. Between 1979 and 2011, in fact—while wages were staying flat—average productivity nearly doubled, from $36.03 of goods produced per hour worked, to $60.83.
The problem is not that the typical American worker is not working hard enough or not producing enough; it is that factors beyond his or her control—chiefly labor-saving technology and wage competition from low-wage countries—have reduced the market value of that work.
A bigger share of revenue now goes to managers and stockholders. So a small number of wealthy people with very high incomes now get most of the gains from increased production. No wonder that many Americans feel that they have been marching up a steep hill but getting nowhere. No wonder that many resent those who seem to have leapt ahead—whether they focus on wealthy corporate executives and hedge fund managers or on immigrants and minorities.
Wage and income stagnation tell us something about why there were so many antiestablishment Trump and Sanders voters in the 2016 elections. Americans can no longer take much consolation from hopes and dreams of upward mobility, even in relative terms.
The American Dream promises that hard work, creative thinking, risk taking, and thrift can get anyone—or at least anyone’s children—to the top of the heap. In actual fact, however, Americans who are born into lower-income families tend to stay in the lower income ranges all their lives. So do their children.
Those born at the top mostly stay near the top. For example, a recent study found that about half of Americans who had been in the bottom fifth of income-earning households in 1987 and were aged thirty-five to forty at the time remained in the bottom fifth twenty years later, despite the normal expectation of rising earnings over the life cycle. Those who did move generally did not move far. Fewer than one out of twenty made it into the top fifth, and fewer than one in forty into the top tenth.
Americans enjoy somewhat more mobility between generations than within them, but less than we might like to think. High-earning parents tend to have high-earning children, and low earners tend to have low earners. The sons of fathers in the bottom tenth of income earners have just a paltry 4.5 percent chance of making it into the top fifth. (If parents’income did not matter, everyone would have a 20 percent chance of making it into the top fifth.)
A moment’s thought about the importance of family in early childhood nurturance and in schooling, personal networks, college attendance, and financial help with homes and businesses helps us understand why it is rare to leap from the bottom to the top. More startling is the fact that the United States now appears to have less, rather than more, intergenerational mobility than several other countries that we sometimes sneer at as stultified: especially the egalitarian Scandinavians (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden), but also Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Japan.
The most striking contrast is with our neighbor Canada, which resembles us in many ways but has some government policies that are very different from ours. Canada enjoys one of the highest rates of intergenerational mobility among advanced countries, while we suffer from one of the lowest.
DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do about It
Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens.
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