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Why Does American Politics Feel So Hopeless? A New Book Explains

As Congress rushes to pass a humongous, unpopular tax bill with minimal public input, Americans might be wondering where democracy went wrong.

And you may ask yourself: how did I get here?   Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Past midnight on December 2, after much of America had gone to bed, the Senate passed a massive tax reform package, trying to cram in a first major legislative victory for President Trump in his first year in office. It’s not law yet, but a deal to reconcile the House and Senate versions is in place and is expected to be voted on next week, when it could become a resonant conclusion to the GOP’s first year in control of the White House and Congress: a hastily written yet massively transformative and politically unpopular bill that squeezed through late in the night.

The same thing nearly happened with their health-care bill, which died one vote short, that of John McCain, in a moment of high drama on the floor during which reporters (correctly, it turns out) tried to divine the fate of the bill through the Arizona senator’s body language and that of his colleagues.

It was an irregular process done at unusual speed that goes against public opinion polling, an approach that intensified with the tax bill. How did we get to this point?

Few analysts have presented a case as clear as Northwestern political scientist Benjamin I. Page and his longtime collaborator, Princeton’s Martin Gilens. I’ve written about their work before, when a journal article landed them on The Daily Show. Such research is normally the province of policy wonks, but Page and Gilens offered a thorough and rare examination of what the very rich believe—which Page arrived at through hard-won access to some of the Chicago-area’s wealthiest people—and how they wield their power despite being a very small minority.

The ultra wealthy stand to benefit from this new tax bill, too. It’s not finalized, but the Washington Post’s Andrew Van Dam calls it “probably the most regressive tax cut in the past 50 years” and that it is “hard to find a tax plan that has done less for the middle class.” That means it’s a bad plan for a huge group of people, including the middle- to upper-middle-class Republicans who make up a critical part of the GOP base, and it seems like an immense risk for the party to take.

In Page and Gillens’s new book, Democracy in America?, they explain why it’s a risk Republicans are willing to take—and why Democrats generally fail to offer economically progressive alternatives even as that party has grown more socially liberal in recent decades. Put simply: The wealthy influence policy and everyone else has little to no influence at all. The rest of us only get what we want when it is in sync with the desires of the very rich.

The hectic pace of the GOP tax bill and their barely failed health-care bill are a feature, not a bug, of this system. You’ve probably heard a lot about “regular order” recently, particularly from McCain, who cited it as a reason to sink the health-care bill. It’s a vague idea, but it generally refers to a slow, bipartisan process that begins in Congress’s more specialized committees and leaves time for in-house and external analysts to predict the economic effects of legislation.

When bills are rushed through, that leaves little time for analysis, and for that analysis to reach voters. “Polarized parties and divided government in Washington have led to a frequent practice of passing enormous, last-minute ‘omnibus’ spending and tax bills,” they write. “Instead of following ‘regular order’… a whole year’s worth of taxing and spending by the entire federal government now often gets decided by just two huge, complex, quickly passed laws. This increased size, complexity, and haste in legislating greatly increases the ability of lobbyists to insert special provisions into the law.”

A New York Times piece demonstrates how this could work with the current GOP tax plan, titled “It Started as a Tax Cut. Now It Could Change American Life.” To pay for the tax cuts, for example, it could trigger Medicare cuts and repeal the individual mandate for Obamacare, pushing millions off health insurance. It could include a repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which would permit 501©(3) nonprofit groups to participate in political activities, opening another flow of money and influence. Another provision could allow parents to set aside tax-free money for religious education. And there’s noise, particularly from House Speaker Paul Ryan and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, that Congress may reduce Medicare and Social Security spending in the wake of a bill that is widely agreed to add vastly to the national debt.

On a lower but still critically important level, tax lawyers have found potential loopholes in the hastily crafted and vaguely worded Senate legislation, like defining what an endowment is, in the proposal to tax certain private-university endowments. “The more you read, the more you go ‘Holy crap, what’s this,’” a former tax official from the George W. Bush administration told Politico.

Cuts to Social Security would be extremely unpopular, especially among older Americans who tend to lean Republican. But not necessarily with the wealthy. Page surveyed Chicago-area multimillionaires in 2011, comparing their political beliefs with those of the general public. While 55 percent of all citizens favored expanding Social Security, just three percent of the multimillionaires surveyed by Page favored it. This was tied for the biggest gap in his polling: 87 percent of the general public favored “spend whatever is necessary for really good public schools”; 35 percent of multimillionaires agreed, another gap of 52 percentage points.

Page ran through a relatively progressive wish list that the general public mostly supported, from “minimum wage should be above the poverty line” to “reduce inequality by heavy taxes on the rich.” Only a few items didn’t garner majority support from the general public: "should reduce differences between high and low incomes” (46 percent), “increase the earned income tax credit” (49 percent), and “provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed” (50 percent).

Multimillionaires were consistently less favorable of those ideas, with a gap that ranged from 13 to 51 percentage points. A majority of multimillionaires favored only “Social Security should ensure minimum standard of living” (55 percent) and more regulation of Wall Street firms, the oil industry, and the health insurance industry.

“What wealthy Americans want—and what they get—from government is often quite different from the relatively progressive economic policies that most Americans want,” they conclude.

Donald Trump, they argue, leveraged his personal wealth and fame to win the GOP nomination, allowing him to avoid party orthodoxy on these issues and run on a comparatively populist platform. (A similar thing occurred with Bernie Sanders, though with neither fame nor wealth, he was merely able to mount a more substantial challenge to Hillary Clinton than had been expected.) But Trump’s promises have largely gone unfulfilled, whether intentionally or because he has maintained a relatively weak presidency with a glaring disinterest in shaping legislation.

Page and Gilens offer a laundry list of solutions, some more practical than others—and the most practical ones may be at the state level. Illinois enacted one of these reforms in August, becoming the tenth state to pass an automatic voter registration law, which in other states has led to a larger and more diverse electorate. Others would change not only how we vote but how we are represented, such as multimember districts that would ensure, or at least encourage, bipartisan representation at the legislative level. Illinois once had a similar system, “cumulative voting,” which succeeded in many of the ways Page and Gilens envision with their proposals. And its demise has been credited for consolidating political power in the office of the Speaker of the House, a long-held bipartisan complaint.

Other solutions are longer shots, going against current political trends; they recommend overturning the Citizens United decision as part of an effort to reduce the influence of private money in elections, and while they cite evidence that such a move would be politically popular, it runs into the same barriers that they describe about economic policy. Without dismantling Citizen United, the effectiveness of publicly funded elections, another of their favored ideas, is curtailed or eliminated.

But the barriers are much lower at the state level, where citizens and legislators have been able to experiment with changes in voting and campaign financing. States are famously the labs of democracy in America; they may be where we save it.

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