Trying to Explain my Crazy Country

                                                                                    October 2012



Boss Tweed, by Thomas Nast. “The “Brains”
This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

A few months ago, a Facebook friend of mine from New Zealand posted a picture of President Obama hugging a crying woman.  The sidebar read: “President Obama stopped shaking hands for a moment today so that he could embrace a sobbing woman whose uninsured sister recently died of colon cancer. The sister of Stephanie Miller would have been covered if Obamacare were fully implemented when she got sick. Instead, the woman was left without insurance and couldn’t get the health care she needed.”[1] I commented, “Many of the people who say they hate Obamacare are probably in the same (or similar) situation.”  My friend from New Zealand responded, “Really, Ellen? Why are people so against it? I can’t get my head around it, to be honest. The richest country in the world, and the citizens are dying because they can’t afford medical care. It’s totally immoral.”

I told her I shared her incredulity as well as the sense of immorality.  There are things that happen in this country – repeatedly – that I cannot wrap my mind around, so I can imagine how unfathomable we must look to those outside the country.  Just this morning, I read about another mindless massacre of innocent people – and this just a few weeks after the mindless massacre in a movie theatre in Colorado that left 12 people dead and many more wounded.  And yet we still are not having any serious discussion about gun control, as if these massacres of innocent people are just something we have to accept.

I told my friend from New Zealand that I would try to write down some of my thoughts in answer to her totally reasonable question – and, more broadly, in answer to the question: How did we come to this completely crazy (and immoral) place? This essay is my attempt at an answer.

I should mention a couple of things at the outset.  First, I am an environmental economist by profession, not a political scientist, lawyer, or politician, so although I’ve read a lot, I am not an expert on any of this, except the small interface between what happens in the political sphere and environmental economic concerns.  Second, I am a liberal and a lifelong Democrat. In researching for this essay and trying to piece together a coherent answer to the question, I have tried to remain as unbiased and evidence-based as possible. However, my reading of the evidence to date does not produce a story in which “both sides are equally culpable.”

Volumes have been written on various aspects of what has been happening on both the left and the right in this country over the last several decades, on the three branches of government, on the media, and on the American public. My goal here is to present a coherent story of what has happened, why it has happened, to the extent that anyone understands why, and how the pieces fit together to have produced the situation in which we now find ourselves.

I focus first on each of the separate “pieces” of the puzzle – the Republicans, the Democrats, the great ideological divide between them, the capitalists and the growing threat of plutocracy, the American public, the media, and, less obviously but no less importantly, the changing culture.  Finally, I discuss how all these “pieces” fit together to create the crazy, and (IMHO) morally challenged country that has the rest of the world shaking its collective head in disbelief.

The Republicans

The Republican Party has undergone by far the most radical changes over the last several decades of any of the major “players” in this story.  Back in the sixties and before, it was sometimes said that there was really very little difference between the Republican and Democratic parties in this country.  That is no longer true – and this is largely because the GOP has moved steadily, relentlessly, and radically to the right.[2] Here’s how Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, two political scientists whose research has focused on this transformation of the GOP, described it in 2005:

“If a modern Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in 1975 and woke up thirty years later … he might ask himself what Republicans and Democrats were up to after all those years. And then he would get one of the biggest shocks of all.  … Rip might recall the moderate Midwestern Republican Gerald Ford and the staid conservative party he momentarily led.  He might remember that in the early 1970s, Republicans helped push for a bevy of new environmental and consumer regulations, higher Social Security benefits, and national price controls, not to mention a huge increase in social spending for the poor … And so he might be more than a little surprised to discover that the Republican Party of 2005 defines itself roughly in opposition to all those causes.  Now a party firmly grounded in the South, all but extinct in its old stomping ground of the Northeast, the GOP is headed by a former Texas governor who wants to carve private accounts out of Social Security, make Medicare more reliant on private health plans, and slash taxes while holding the line on social spending.  Meanwhile, the party’s most bellicose congressional strongman, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, is against federal regulation as a matter of course, gleefully likening the Environmental Protection Agency – created under Republican presidential rule in 1970 – to the Nazi Gestapo.” [3]

And things have only gotten more extreme since then.  The GOP is no longer talking about “holding the line” on social spending.  While proposing cutting taxes (for the rich), Republicans generally support slashing spending on the poor and the middle class.[4]

The GOP was traditionally fiscally conservative, a bit “staid,” as Hacker and Pierson note, and known to be friendly to business and the military.  However, many of the statements and political decisions made by past Republican presidents – recall that Richard Nixon created the EPA, and both Ronald Reagan and H.W. Bush raised taxes when they felt it was necessary – would be absolutely unthinkable in the current GOP.  Much of the current GOP would like to abolish not only the EPA, but several other federal agencies as well; and almost all Republicans in Congress and all but one of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates have signed the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”, instituted by Grover Norquist in 1986, vowing that they will never, under any circumstances, raise taxes.

Each new crop of Republican Congressmen and presidential candidates has made the previous crop look “moderate” by comparison.  A list of eye-popping statements by Republican presidential candidates in the 2012 Republican primary, or statements routinely made by conservatives who are invited to speak at Republican Conventions (e.g., Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh) would be too long to include here.[5]  There have, of course, been some outrageous things said on the left too – in particular, back in the 1960s and early 70s – but the people who said them were on the fringe, not in the center of the Democratic Party, and certainly not in Congress or running for president.  That’s the striking difference.  The “lunatic fringe” on the right has come front and center, both in Congress and among Republican presidential contenders.  Moreover, doctrines that used to be considered “fringe” are now Republican orthodoxy or close to it, lack of evidence supporting those doctrines notwithstanding.[6]

Of course, not all Republican politicians agree with all of the radical statements made by some on the right.  But there has been a notable silence among Republican politicians in response.  It is relatively rare for Republicans to call out a fellow Republican for making a clearly outrageous and/or offensive statement.[7]

Ideologically, both parties have become more “pure,” but this is especially true of the Republican Party.  This is in part due to the wholesale transfer of the (white) South from the Democratic column to the Republican column after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, followed by the Republicans’ “Southern strategy” of playing on the resentments and racism of whites in the South.[8]  When the South became Republican, it brought to that Party its conservatism on social issues and its deep religiosity.  It has been said that the GOP is now essentially a party of the South.[9]

The words “Republican” and “conservative” are now practically interchangeable, since moderate Republicans have been almost completely purged from the party.[10] (As of this writing, there are only two moderate Republicans remaining in the Senate – Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both from Maine, and Olympia Snowe has announced her retirement, largely out of frustration with the direction of her party and the dysfunction of Congress.)  All of the other moderate Republicans have either been beaten in Republican primaries by more conservative Republicans, with the help of the Party, or beaten by Democrats in elections.  The ideological “range” remaining in the current GOP runs from conservative through ultra-conservative to lunatic.

The conservatism of the current Republican Party is front and center on social issues.  Like the South that now comprises much of its base, it is deeply religious (or at least requires a veneer of deep religiosity from its politicians), and, Mitt Romney notwithstanding, that religion is Christianity.  Much has been written about the “takeover” of the GOP by the Christian right, including its push to declare that this is a Christian nation (a declaration that goes against a proud tradition of separation of church and state).  In line with this Christian stance, the GOP is against abortion and gay marriage (although a few in the party have been supportive of gay marriage – typically, those who actually know gay people). Most recently, in the 2011-2012 presidential campaign, various people and organizations on the far right have challenged women’s access to contraception.  Much of this challenge to women’s access to reproductive healthcare has been framed as the left attacking religious freedom.

On the economy, the GOP’s stance has ossified into a simple and simplistic mantra:  the federal government should get out of the way of the “free market,” whose unfettered “invisible hand” will work its magic, increasing the size of the economic pie, thus benefiting everyone.  Capitalism encourages risk-taking by entrepreneurs who create new enterprises and jobs for everyone else.  Regulation of the industrial and financial sectors of the economy only serves to stifle this “free market” energy and enterprise, thus dampening economic growth.  Even the recent financial crisis of 2008 – which brought the world economy to the brink of collapse and which was due in large part to a lack of regulation of the financial sector – didn’t change the GOP’s “story” that regulation (like government) is the problem, not the solution.

The need for federal regulations in “tragedy of the commons” situations – in which individual economic actors have no incentive to stop polluting a public “commons” and the public suffers as a result – is simply ignored by the GOP. Climate change is only the most recent and most striking example of a “tragedy of the commons” pollution problem, and it has become almost a requirement for Republican politicians to either deny or ignore this potentially catastrophic problem.

The GOP’s fiscal conservatism has similarly hardened into a rigid stance against raising taxes – ever, for any reason.  This rigidity was on full display in one of the Republican primary debates of 2011. Ezra Klein (of the Washington Post) was one of the many pundits who captured the “eye-poppingness” of the moment:  “The most telling moment of Thursday’s GOP debate … was when every single GOP candidate on the stage agreed that they would reject a budget deal [with the Democrats] that was $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Even Fox News’s Bret Baier couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. He asked again just to make sure the assembled candidates had understood the question.”[11]

Notably, this occurred after the now-infamous debt ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011.  Although virtually all credible economists and policy analysts have said that any deficit reduction package must include a mix of tax increases and spending reductions, the Republicans refused to consider raising taxes at all as part of a deficit reduction package, bringing the economy to the brink of disaster and ultimately damaging the credit rating of the United States for the first time in history.[12]

Since the election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, the GOP has increasingly been characterized by “scorched earth” tactics, by an unwillingness to compromise, and by a willingness to destroy long-standing conventions that have allowed Congress to function reasonably smoothly for over two hundred years (until recently).  In October 2011, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told National Journal‘s Major Garrett, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”[13] Towards that end, the GOP has consistently blocked all Obama initiatives, including those that were originally Republican ideas.[14]  The filibuster, which was originally used only for what were considered extreme circumstances, is now used so routinely by Republicans that many in the media routinely refer to “the 60 votes necessary to pass legislation in the Senate,” neglecting to remind people that 60 votes are now necessary only because of the constant threat of filibuster by the GOP.  By this point, many Americans must think that 60 votes are required by the rules of the Senate for legislation to pass.

After decades of Congress-watching, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, two highly respected Congressional scholars, finally came out and said what had become clear to anyone paying attention:

“We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.  The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition … Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.  ”[15]

The GOP’s unwillingness to compromise is one of its most dangerous characteristics.  Unlike a parliamentary democracy, a presidential democracy, as we have in the United States, relies on compromise in order to function.  Although it was already becoming difficult to achieve compromise between increasingly polarized Republicans and Democrats in Congress throughout the 2000s, the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 greatly aggravated the problem.  Members of the Tea Party saw compromise as a bad thing, as giving up on cherished principle.  It was the freshman Tea Party Republicans who refused to compromise in the debt ceiling crisis, regardless of the consequences for the country, who were largely responsible for the debacle.  It is unclear whether they actually truly understood those consequences, although president Obama certainly did.

The refusal to acknowledge scientific evidence that contradicts its ideology or its interests – and its anti-intellectualism, in general – is the other seriously dangerous characteristic of the modern GOP. The two examples that are routinely noted are the substantial percentage of Republicans who (1) do not believe in evolution[16] and (2) deny that climate change is happening and is largely human-caused.  It is practically required to get on the climate change denial/skepticism bandwagon to be considered a serious contender in a Republican primary, despite the fact that the consensus among climate scientists that climate change is real and human-caused is almost universal.  And, needless to say, the consensus among scientists that evolution has indeed been happening is universal.

These anti-intellectual attitudes arose in the GOP as a response, I would guess, to two other developments: (1) the rise in importance of the religious right in the GOP and (2) the Party’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.  I suspect that more Republican politicians actually do believe in evolution and in climate change than are willing to admit so publicly, and these anti-intellectual public stances are simple pandering to their base (a large percentage of whom are evangelical Christian creationists) and their corporate paymasters, without whose largesse the Party would have a much harder time.

More broadly, there has been a tendency in the GOP to simply reject conclusions – even those of experts and non-partisan organizations – that run counter to the line Republicans have been pushing.  For example, the vast majority of economists agrees that tax cuts don’t “pay for themselves” and that any budget package that will reduce the deficit must include both reductions in spending and increases in taxes.  Economists also generally agree that the 2009 Recovery Act (i.e. the stimulus), which GOP leaders have repeatedly denounced as a failure, did in fact reduce unemployment.[17]  After conducting “the most comprehensive analysis to date of Romney’s tax plan” the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center described it as “mathematically impossible.”[18]  Romney simply dismissed that conclusion.

The Democrats

While the GOP has traditionally been the party of business, the Democratic Party has traditionally been the party of labor.  In the past, labor unions were a major source of organization and money for the Democrats – probably the major source.  No more.  In an excellent essay written in Mother Jones magazine, Kevin Drum lays out what has happened to labor, to the Democrats, and to their relationship over the last several decades – and the consequences.  This section is largely based on Drum’s essay, which is well worth reading in full.[19] Any quotes in this section that are not otherwise attributed are from Drum’s essay.

Drum starts his essay by noting a little known fact – that American politicians don’t respond to the desires of voters with modest incomes – and this is true of both Republican and Democratic politicians.[20]  If politicians care only about the concerns of the rich, it follows that the legislation and policies they enact would benefit the rich – and that has been the case for the last several decades. But it wasn’t always so.

Because Republicans have traditionally been aligned with business, the “coalition” of the GOP and the wealthy class might not seem so unusual.  But what about the Democrats? “In the past, after all, liberal politicians did make it their business to advocate for the working and middle classes, and they worked that advocacy through the Democratic Party. But they largely stopped doing this in the ’70s, leaving the interests of corporations and the wealthy nearly unopposed.” Why?

Democrats historically were aligned with labor, and, until several decades ago, labor unions provided the institutional base and the organizational muscle for the Democratic Party.  Organized labor was also what made the economy work for the middle class. But for several reasons, some of them (e.g., technological change) having little or nothing to do with politics, labor began to decline.  The decline of labor began in the 1950s and picked up speed as technology and low-wage competition from other countries accelerated.  But it wasn’t until the rise of the New Left in the ‘60s that the solid relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party began to fray badly.

“The results were catastrophic. Business groups, simultaneously alarmed at the expansion of federal regulations during the ’60s and newly emboldened by the obvious fault lines on the left, started hiring lobbyists and launching political action committees at a torrid pace. At the same time, corporations began to realize that lobbying individually for their own parochial interests (steel, sugar, finance, etc.) wasn’t enough: They needed to band together to push aggressively for a broadly pro-business legislative environment. … Over the next few years, the Chamber of Commerce morphed into an aggressive and highly politicized advocate of business interests, conservative think tanks began to flourish, and more than 100 corporate CEOs banded together to found a pro-market supergroup, the Business Roundtable….

“Organized labor, already in trouble thanks to stagflation, globalization, and the decay of manufacturing, now went into a death spiral. That decline led to a decline in the power of the Democratic Party, which in turn led to fewer protections for unions. Rinse and repeat.”

With the demise of organized labor, and the fraying of the relationship between it and the Democratic Party, the Democrats lost their institutional base and organizational muscle.  As Drum notes,

“Parties need money. And parties need organizational muscle. The Republican Party gets the former from corporate sponsors and the latter from highly organized church-based groups. The Democratic Party, conversely, relied heavily on organized labor for both in the postwar era. So as unions increasingly withered beginning in the ’70s, the Democratic Party turned to the only other source of money and influence available in large-enough quantities to replace big labor: the business community. …. After all, what choice did Democrats have? Without substantial support from labor or business, no modern party can thrive….”

So the last several decades have watched the capitalists gain in strength and power as labor has declined – and with it the power of the Democratic Party.  Add to this the loss of the bloc of Southern Democrats to the Republicans following the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Republicans’ “southern strategy,” and the Democratic Party that once maintained control of Congress for a 40-year stretch is now struggling.  The Democrats have been called “feckless” because of their inability to effectively counter recent Republican radicalism, but if Drum is right (and I suspect he is), it’s inevitably an uphill struggle to fight in the absence of real institutional support.  The Republicans, traditionally the party of business, has always courted corporations and industry.  Now the Democrats must do that too – from a much more uncomfortable position.

The Great Ideological Divide

Life is complicated, but ideologies tend to be relatively simple – and that is part of the problem. The truth is undoubtedly more complicated and nuanced than either conservatives or liberals care to admit. We all say we want a society that is well functioning and provides people with a good life, or at least a good shot at a good life. The problem is how best to achieve that.  (There’s another “minor” issue of what exactly we mean by “a good life” – and conservatives and liberals don’t entirely agree about that either.)

The differing views focus largely on the government and the individual. In particular, conservatives and liberals disagree about (1) the proper role of government, and (2) how they see individual success and failure.  These are related.

Conservatives believe an individual’s success is largely due to that individual’s initiative, hard work, and perseverance – grit.  America grew up on Horatio Alger stories, after all. Conversely, they view failure as largely due to lack of initiative, laziness, and a readiness to give up too easily.  I suspect that conservatives would pay lip service to the other factors – socioeconomic factors, most notably – that affect one’s likelihood of success.  But those other factors can be overcome, they would say, by the right attitudes.

Liberals are much more aware of those other factors that give some people an edge over other people right from the start – people who are rich have an easier time than those who are poor; some races have received preferential treatment over other races; men have often received preferential treatment over women, etc.  And then there’s just plain luck – some people have good luck; others have bad luck.  I suspect that if you pointed out that the individual’s attitude – his willingness to take the initiative, to work hard, to stick with it – his grit – matters a great deal, liberals would agree. But these attitudinal factors can be overwhelmed, they would say, by socioeconomic factors and by sheer bad luck. It’s the exceptional person who can overcome the barrage of socioeconomic hurdles that many “failures” have faced.

In line with these differing views of individual success and failure, liberals and conservatives have differing ideas about the proper role of government.  If socioeconomic factors, and just sheer luck, can have such an impact on an individual’s ability to succeed, then the government should do what it can to help those who are “coming from behind” or those who have been hit with a spate of bad luck, liberals say.  Thus, liberals want an active government, one that tries to help people in need and one that tries to create a more level playing field that unfortunately doesn’t exist naturally in society.

Since conservatives believe that an individual’s attitude matters more than social factors, having the government actively trying to help sends all the wrong messages – “you don’t have to work so hard, because the government is here to help you; don’t worry, we’ll take care of you; you’re entitled.”  Conservatives worry that a federal government that does too much for people will breed dependency.  The more individuals are expected to take responsibility for themselves, the more they will; the more they get used to government programs providing for them, the more dependent they will become and the less self-reliant they will be.

In response to an interviewer’s question recently, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, said, “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” New York Magazine’s John Heilemann perfectly captured the conservative attitude when he noted, “To conservative intellectuals and activists, talk about fixing the safety net—as opposed to pursuing policies that enable the poor to free themselves from government dependency—is rank apostasy.”[21]

Paul Ryan, Romney’s vice presidential pick, exudes that belief.  As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recounts, “After recalling his family’s immigration from Ireland generations ago, and his belief in the virtue of people who ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps,’ Ryan warned that a generous safety net ‘lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.’”[22]

Beyond the fear of people becoming dependent on a too-generous government, many conservatives – notably, those who are followers of Ayn Rand – regard using the federal tax code and budget to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor as immoral, “a form of organized looting aimed at society’s most virtuous [the rich]”.[23]

There are other reasons too that conservatives dislike “big government.”  Since the days of the Soviet Union and the cold war, conservatives in the United States have been very wary of too much power being located in the federal government, because they saw that in communist countries where the state held virtually all the power, there was little freedom for the people.  The conservative mantra that the federal government should be small (i.e., should be limited in both size and responsibilities) stems in part from this fear of the state becoming too powerful and thus dangerous.

A too powerful federal government can also stick its nose into the private sector to impose regulations and various “policy instruments” that impact businesses and industries. Republicans, traditionally friendly to business, have been sympathetic to the cries from industry that federal regulations are too onerous.  In fact, the modern GOP has an almost worshipful relationship to the “free market.” In general, conservatives believe that the best thing the government can do – with respect to the individual and the market – is to just get out of the way.[24]

Liberals, of course, see things very differently.  While most liberals would probably acknowledge that some recipients of government help do feel entitled and do become dependent, most, they would argue, don’t. There are all sorts of reasons people might need some temporary help – how often have you heard the expression, “one medical bill away from bankruptcy” – and liberals want to live in the kind of society in which we help those who need help when they need it.  Moreover, a helping hand from the government is often just what is needed to allow someone to become independent and self-supporting – e.g., Pell grants for students or, earlier, the G.I. bill.

Liberals are also acutely aware of the many disparities in society, and the important role of sheer luck. And while we cannot (and probably should not) aim for equality of outcomes, liberals believe we should aim for equality of opportunity.  Ideally, disadvantaged children should have the same (or similar) chances for success in life as the children of the rich.

In line with that thinking, liberals see the crucial importance of inputs from others – from the family, the community, and the larger society – in an individual’s success, and the concomitant obligation for those who succeed to “give back.”  Elizabeth Warren, currently running for Senator from Massachusetts, may have put it best, in one of her campaign talks:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…. You built a factory, and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”[25]

Strikingly, ideologues rarely cite data to back up their viewpoints; it is much easier, more persuasive, and more common to simply cherry-pick anecdotes.   When actual data contradict these viewpoints, ideologues tend to dismiss the data and/or the analysts analyzing the data.  The questions underlying conservative and liberal ideologies are ultimately largely empirical questions: What are the most important factors determining the likelihood an individual will succeed or fail? Are the individual’s attitudes and innate talent ultimately more important than socioeconomic factors and luck? How well have government programs aimed at “lending a helping hand” worked? These are obviously difficult questions to answer, but they are in theory answerable.  But ideologues, by definition, aren’t all that interested in actual answers.  They think they know the answers – and are already emotionally invested in their answers – and so feel they have no need for actual evidence beyond cherry-picked anecdotes. That is a big part of our current problem. Moreover, when actual evidence contradicting the opinions of ideologues is presented, they tend to simply double down on their beliefs rather than adjusting them in light of the new evidence.[26] Defense of the ideology becomes paramount; evidence contradicting the ideology is regarded as an attack and thus something to be countered.[27]

But much ideology is wrong, exaggerated, or clearly simplistic.  In microeconomics 101, the free market may indeed be perfect and the “invisible hand” may indeed cause everything to work out most efficiently.  But in the real world markets are often not completely free and competition is not completely perfect, and private firms do not have all the right incentives to maximize social welfare.  All of the “tragedy of the commons” situations, noted above, are situations in which the free market fails spectacularly and government intervention of some kind is necessary. This is all learned in microeconomics 201, but ideologues on the right apparently don’t take that course.

And while the concern that too much government largesse could breed too much dependency is, I believe, legitimate, I don’t think “too much dependency” is really an issue in the current circumstances.  Moreover, the conservative view seems to completely ignore the “luck factor” – even self-reliant people can have bad luck, and when that happens it is preferable to have a safety net to “catch” them rather than have them simply become destitute.

Similarly, while conservatives’ concern about too much power accumulating in the federal government should not be trivialized, we are not anywhere near the level of State consolidation of power that occurred in the Soviet Union and similar totalitarian nations.  We are, in fact, still a democracy with the rule of law.

The public debate is hampered by this tendency to take things to absurd extremes – for example, to assume that if we allow the government to do some things we will end up with the government doing everything, which we don’t want. It’s a kind of “slippery slope” mentality.[28] It’s pretty clear that we need the federal government to do some things – quite a few things, actually – that it can do far better than the private sector, just as there are many things the private sector can do far better than the government. The trick is to get the right balance, without “slipping down the slope” too far in either direction – i.e., not giving the government so much power that it becomes a threat to the people, and similarly, not giving the private sector so much power that it becomes a threat to the people. I would argue that right now we have to worry about the latter more than the former – i.e., growing plutocracy in this country.

The Capitalists, Income Inequality, and the Growing Threat of Plutocracy

“… politicians don’t respond to the concerns of voters, they respond to the organized muscle of institutions that represent them. With labor in decline, both parties now respond strongly to the interests of the rich—whose institutional representation is deep and energetic—and barely at all to the interests of the working and middle classes. This has produced three decades of commercial and financial deregulation … There were a lot of ways America could have responded to the twin challenges of ’70s-era stagflation and the globalization of finance, but the policies we chose almost invariably ignored the stagnating wages of the middle class and instead catered to the desires of the superrich: hefty tax cuts on both high incomes and capital gains. Deregulation of S&Ls (PDF) that led to extensive looting and billions in taxpayer losses. Monetary policy focused excessively on inflation instead of employment levels. Tacit acceptance of asset bubbles as a way of maintaining high economic growth. An unwillingness to regulate financial derivatives that led to enormous Wall Street profits and contributed to the financial crisis of 2008. At nearly every turn, corporations and the financial industry used their institutional muscle to get what they wanted, while the working class sat by and watched, mostly unaware that any of this was even happening. …”[29]

This all resulted in an extraordinary accumulation of both economic and political power in some sectors of the economy, corporations, and the rich. The resulting dramatic increase in income inequality in this country has been well documented.[30]

While the negative effects of such a skewed income distribution are undoubtedly many and deep, the link between economic power and political power is particularly ominous in the post-Citizens United world we now inhabit.  It is what scientists would call a “positive feedback loop.” The ability of wealthy entities (e.g., corporations) to buy influence in political circles increases the ease with which these wealthy entities can accumulate wealth, thereby increasing their political influence, thereby increasing their ability to accumulate wealth, and so on.

How does money buy political power? Corporations and the rich can effectively spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns, and most of that money, contributed to “super PACs” that are not accountable, goes to producing negative ads.  While the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision considers these ads “speech,” they would more accurately be described as attempts at emotional manipulation – the more successful negative ads are fear-mongering and often play on people’s worst tendencies.

In the current (2012) presidential campaign, for example, Romney has an ad out on welfare that says that “under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you a check and welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare.” This is a flat-out lie, which earned the worst ratings by all the major fact-checkers – the Tampa Bay Times’ Politifact, [31] the Washington Post’s Fact Checker,[32] and the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s[33] However, this has not stopped the Romney campaign from repeating this ad many times. But why is Romney talking about welfare anyway, since it is not a current issue?  Because it plays to the racial resentment of working class whites, a key constituency that Romney needs to win.  As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post notes, “Romney’s welfare ads are not racist. But the evidence suggests that they work particularly well if the viewer is racist, or at least racially resentful. And these are the ads that are working so unexpectedly well that welfare is now the spine of Romney’s 2012 on-air message in the battleground states.”[34], [35]

The Romney welfare ad is just the latest in a long tradition of negative ads (most of which, unlike Romney’s, have at least a grain of truth in them) that play on people’s fears and emotions – including, for example, the infamous Willie Horton ad, which got a lot of the credit for the defeat of Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election, and the “Daisy” ad, which similarly is credited with the defeat of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.[36]  The anecdotal evidence – and some more scientific evidence[37] – suggests that negative ads, particularly those that play on people’s fears and resentments, can be quite effective.

What this means is that those with a lot of money can have an outsize influence on the political process.  If there were no money in politics, each person’s vote would represent that person’s influence on the election, and one individual’s impact on the political process would be no greater than another’s.  When corporations and the very rich can pour money into political campaigns, ordinary Americans rightly feel that elections can essentially be bought. It’s no longer one person, one vote; it’s whoever can inject the most money into a campaign has the greatest influence on the outcome.

This is true as well for the process of governing, when the same Deep Pockets influence the passing (or blocking or watering down) of important legislation.  This presents a great danger for any democracy.  As Justice Stevens wrote in a dissenting opinion in the Citizens United case, “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”

In his speech, “Welcome to the Plutocracy!” at Boston University on October 29, 2010, Bill Moyers describes “the two Americas. A buoyant Wall Street; a doleful Main Street” and he charts the descent of our democracy into plutocracy:

“The Gilded Age returned with a vengeance in our time. It slipped in quietly at first, back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began a ‘massive decades-long transfer of national wealth to the rich.’ As Roger Hodge makes clear, under Bill Clinton the transfer was even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an ever-growing share of national income. The trend continued under George W. Bush – those huge tax cuts for the rich, remember, which are now about to be extended because both parties have been bought off by the wealthy – and by 2007 the wealthiest 10% of Americans were taking in 50% of the national income. Today, a fraction of people at the top today [sic] earn more than the bottom 120 million Americans.”[38]

Both parties have been bought off by the wealthy.” Politicians need money – and they need more money with each election cycle – to run the ads that help them win elections. So they cannot afford to offend or antagonize the deepest pockets. As noted above, with the demise of labor unions even the Democrats have become largely dependent on wealthy corporations and Wall Street.  Our current money-infused political system is thus entangled in – and being strangled by – the mother of all conflicts of interest. Congressmen who try to regulate industries that they depend on for campaign donations simply cannot have only the public’s interest at heart when they make their decisions, given that they depend so heavily on not antagonizing the industries they may need in the next election cycle.  This quickly becomes clear to any politician, either running for office or already in office.

“Ask Alan Grayson. He’s a member of Congress. Here’s what he says: ‘We’re now in a situation where a lobbyist can walk into my office…and say, “I’ve got five million dollars to spend and I can spend it for you or against [you].”’”[39]

It is not surprising, given these circumstances, that it has indeed gotten harder and harder to regulate the private sector – even the financial sector, whose recklessness and lack of regulation has been credited with bringing the U.S. and global economies to the brink of collapse.  We are now well down the road to plutocracy, where the laws are made (or blocked) with the benefit of the plutocrats in mind – a country governed by the rich for the rich.

The threat this poses to our democracy is of great concern not only to Americans but to the global community as well. A recent report by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security pointed to the United States specifically as being “corrupted by the increasingly strong role of ‘uncontrolled, undisclosed, illegal and opaque’ financing of political campaigns,” citing the recent Supreme Court Citizens United decision as particularly damaging.[40]

The American Public

One might think that, with the dramatic transfer of wealth to the rich from the middle and lower classes that has occurred in the United States over the last several decades, ordinary Americans would be up in arms.   But they haven’t been.  The very recent “Occupy” movement was really the first glimmer of discontent – and awareness – and it isn’t clear where that will go.  Particularly because the Republican Party has been so business-friendly and encouraged legislation that clearly favors big business at the expense of ordinary Americans, many on the left have been incredulous that so many ordinary working class Americans consistently vote against their own economic interest by voting for the GOP.  As Thomas Frank famously put it in the title of his 2004 book on the subject, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”[41]

The subject of why so many working and middle class Americans, whose own wages have stagnated or declined over the last several decades, continue to vote for the party that has increasingly pushed for tax cuts for the rich and decreased spending on the middle and lower classes warrants more of a discussion than this essay can properly accommodate.  There are undoubtedly many reasons.

To some extent the GOP has been able to focus the attention of social conservatives – including the large block of evangelical Christians among its ranks – on “values” issues. Issues like abortion and gay marriage are easier to understand than economic issues. It may be hard for the GOP to explain its rationale for wanting to cut taxes for the rich while also cutting spending on the working and middle classes, but it’s easy to talk about being against abortion and gay marriage and being in favor of preserving “family values.” These social issues are the “low hanging fruit” for getting social conservatives’ votes.

It’s also easy to demonize the government (in much the same way it’s easy for liberals to demonize corporations – big powerful entities are easy targets). “Get government off our backs” sounds appealing to people who are struggling and angry and don’t really understand who is at fault. Understanding who and/or what is at fault is not trivial even for those who are paying attention and well informed.

And most ordinary Americans are not well informed. And the less well-informed people are, the more easily they are manipulated.  As the GOP has increasingly favored the rich, it has been extraordinarily successful at convincing many ordinary Americans that it stands with them against the evil federal government and the “liberal elite.”

For one thing, there is evidence that most Americans have no idea about the extent to which income inequality has skyrocketed over the last several decades.[42] One of the great benefits of the Occupy movement was that it highlighted the huge divergence between the “1%” and the “99%” (i.e., the rest of us).  But even if ordinary Americans had known about this huge divergence, they would not have known why it was happening. I doubt if most Americans have understood how Big Money has captured the political system, and how the resulting “mother of all conflicts of interest” has repeatedly thwarted policies that would help and protect them.[43] And, as noted above, it’s not just the GOP that has been captured; the Democrats are now dependent on the same corporate money as the GOP and have, surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) shown the same lack of interest in middle class concerns, despite their rhetoric, since the demise of organized labor.

Also, many ordinary Americans believe the conservative line that there’s nothing wrong with great inequality, and that maybe some day they too can become rich, that the rich are the “success stories” to be greatly admired and emulated – and that they did it on their own, because of their determination, hard work, and grit. In line with that thinking, many ordinary conservative Americans–who themselves depend on help from the government – believe that individuals should be self-reliant and disapprove of those who “take handouts.”[44]

Underlying much of the disconnect between what is happening and the way many Americans perceive what is happening is a massive amount of misinformation, confusion, and just plain “magical thinking.” This has been tracked by many polls over many years.

For example, polls suggest that working class whites in the United States believe that Obamacare will make them worse off.  “[Ron] Brownstein suggests that working class whites continue to misunderstand their own interests. Obamacare will benefit them more than almost any other group, but a barrage of misinformation from the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world has convinced them otherwise. They continue to think that only other people will benefit.”[45]

Other polls confirm that large percentages of Americans hold views that are largely dictated by their religions rather than science.  For example, a Gallup poll found that 46 percent of Americans believe in creationism, rather than evolution.[46] A poll of Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi by Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that two-thirds do not believe in evolution.[47]  A Pew poll found that almost 80 percent of Americans believe in miracles.[48]

Another recent Pew poll found that “three and a half years into the presidency of Barack Obama, 17 percent of registered voters still believe that he is a Muslim”; among Republicans that jumps to 30 percent, and among conservative Republicans, 34 percent.[49]  The percentages vary also by geographic region of the country.  The PPP poll, for example, found that only 14 percent of Republicans in Alabama think Obama is a Christian, compared to 45 percent who think he’s a Muslim. Among Republicans in Mississippi, only 12 percent think he’s Christian compared to a whopping 52 percent who think he’s Muslim.[50]

A Harris Poll conducted in 2010 found that “40 percent of Americans say Mr. Obama is a socialist, a third think he’s a Muslim, a quarter think he was not even born in the U.S., is not eligible to be president and is a ‘domestic enemy that the U.S. Constitution speaks of.’”[51]

There have been many polls on a variety of subjects over the years tracking the views and beliefs of Americans.  Putting a few carefully selected keywords (e.g., “poll” “Obama” and “socialist”) into Google quickly yields a lot of results by reputable polling organizations.  The upshot, however, is clear: the level of ignorance and misinformation among the American public is high – and substantially higher than in many other industrialized countries.  This may be due in part to the high level of religiosity in the United States, and, in particular, the high level (relative to other countries in the industrialized world) of fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

A large part of the misinformation, however, may be attributed to purposeful “misinformation campaigns” by media outlets that are essentially arms of the Republican Party.[52]  Constant references by conservative “talking heads” on radio and television to Obamacare as a “government takeover” of our healthcare system (which isn’t true), for example, have convinced many ordinary Americans to be against the Affordable Care Act.  There are many other examples.

More recently, liberal-leaning media (e.g., MSNBC) have taken up the other side, and to a greater and greater extent, Americans get their information from media outlets that share their views, resulting in an “echo chamber” effect that has become increasingly pronounced – which gets to the changes in the media that have occurred over the last several decades.

The Media

Back in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and even into the ‘80s, there were three large television networks – CBS, NBC, and ABC – and most Americans got their news from watching one or more of these three. People trusted that the news media – television, radio, and print media (newspapers and magazines) – were reasonably unbiased, and were just reporting the news (unless it was labeled “opinion”).  As the conservative movement gained steam, however, several trends converged to greatly change the media landscape – how media works and how it is perceived.

One important phenomenon has been the rise of “talk radio.”  As the conservative movement became organized, several conservative radio personalities – most notable among them, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck – established very successful talk shows catering to the anger and resentment of millions of largely white working class people (predominantly men) in this country.  Changes that liberals viewed as successes, or at least developments going in the right direction – for example, affirmative action, busing of school children to achieve racial diversity in schools, a push for gay rights – were viewed by many working and middle class whites as taking the country in the wrong direction and were deeply resented. Limbaugh and Beck (and others) expressed the rage and resentment that has been so deeply felt for decades – as well as virulent strains of racism and conspiracy theory lunacy that are also still alive and well in parts of the country.  These conservative talk shows also became essentially mouthpieces for the Republican Party, criticizing anything progressive and/or of the Democratic Party.

Fox News, established in 1996, did the same on television.  Famous for its slogan, “Fair and balanced,” Fox News has gained the reputation for being anything but – it is viewed with contempt on the left as a highly biased arm of the Republican Party.  It doesn’t take much watching to see the bias (although they do have their token liberals).

At the same time, the right has accused the mainstream newspapers – the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example – of having a liberal bias.[53]  In an effort to correct any perception of “liberal bias,” many in the mainstream media have adopted what they may think of as an evenhanded approach, sometimes referred to as a “he said/she said” approach to journalism – laying out what each side in a debate has said, even if one side is clearly factually wrong or in disagreement with the assessment of a nonpartisan organization.  Writing about the “he said/she said” phenomenon in journalism, the liberal economist/op-ed writer Paul Krugman once quipped that “if President Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headlines of news articles would read, ‘Opinions Differ on Shape of the Earth.’”[54]

This unwillingness of the mainstream media to indicate when one side on an issue is factually incorrect has become part of the problem.  As Ornstein and Mann write, “We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” Their advice to the press: “Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”[55].

Similarly, fearing accusations of being partisan, the press often takes a “both sides do it” stance, when reporting unsavory tactics (e.g., lies and distortions) or intransigence in a dispute.  While both sides do often do these things, they do not necessarily do them to equal degrees, and failing to note when such things are highly unequal results in a “false equivalence.” Krugman focused on this problem during the debt ceiling crisis of 2011, during which the overwhelming opinion of most knowledgeable people was that the blame was not at all equal:

“We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands [and refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless their demands were met], while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are … far to the right of public opinion. So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. … What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism; no way for most voters, who get their information on the fly rather than doing careful study of the issues, to understand what’s really going on.[56] [Emphasis added.]

As Krugman notes, if there is no penalty for “bad behavior” in Congress, it will continue if it is judged to be expedient.  People often don’t know when one side is actually more to blame, and many likely end up with a “pox on both their houses” attitude in situations in which one side has been much more offending than the other.[57]

Finally, a less obvious but no less important change that has occurred over the last several decades is the consolidation of the media. Just six companies now control 90 percent of the media in the United States.[58] While it may seem like there are a lot of media choices, that is somewhat deceptive, since so many are controlled by so few companies.

The following statistics are from Common Cause:[59] (1) Since 1995, the number of companies owning commercial TV stations has declined by over 40 percent  (2) Three media giants own all of the cable news networks; (3) “The Telecommunications Act of 1996 lifted ownership limits for radio stations, leading to incredible consolidation of radio station ownership. One company alone, Clear Channel Inc., owns 850 radio stations across the country. Before the change, a company could not own more than 40 stations nationwide.” (4) “Major corporations, including News Corp., Comcast-NBC Universal, Time Warner, the New York Times, Disney, and Gannett dominate the top Internet news sites.”

As Common Cause notes, “The public owns the airwaves and the FCC grants licenses to broadcasters with the understanding they will serve the public interest.” But to their corporate owners, media outlets are about profit, rather than the public interest. And if the two come in conflict, profit wins. It wasn’t always thus.

The Changing Culture

While there has been endless commentary (and hand wringing) about changing social norms, other cultural norms that underlie our political and economic life, less obvious but no less important, have been changing too.

Cultural norms set our expectations; they are not laws, but rather generally agreed upon attitudes about behaviors in the public sphere – about responsibilities and obligations to the public, about what is appropriate versus inappropriate, about what is within reasonable limits versus excessive.

CBS, NBC, and ABC were for-profit corporations back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, as they are now, and yet the producers of news broadcasts on those television stations in those past decades considered the public interest to be their first obligation.  The news programs simply weren’t considered part of the profit equation.  But now they are, and the lines between “news” and “entertainment,” and between “news” and “propaganda” have been blurred. It is a big problem when large segments of the population regard at least one of the major “news networks” as nothing more than a propaganda arm of one of the two major political parties. Trust is eroded.

Similarly, trust in our economic system is eroded when people see the vast discrepancies in wealth and income that our current system delivers.  In 1980, a CEO made 42 times what his workers made; by 2010 a CEO made 325 times what his workers made.[60]  In past decades, that pay differential would have been considered “unseemly” – that is to say, greedy. Now, it’s just considered how capitalism works (at least by the capitalists). Even CEOs of companies that have not done well financially can receive outsized compensation packages.[61]

And trust in our political system is now badly eroded because the level of Congressional dysfunction is so severe that it’s hard not to see it.  What is less obvious to people, unless they are paying attention, is what is underlying that dysfunction. Several political “institutional behaviors” that have kept Congress functioning reasonably well for over 200 years have been destroyed in recent years.  The judicious use of the filibuster is just one example.  Now that the GOP is willing to always threaten to filibuster, a supermajority is virtually always necessary to pass legislation in the Senate, making it much, much harder to get things done.

And while politicians “spinning” facts and misleading the public is nothing new, the bar has been noticeably lowered there too as a result of cultural changes in the media. As Kevin Drum noted recently when discussing one of several blatant lies being endlessly repeated in Romney ads, “Politicians have increasingly discovered over the past couple of decades that even on a national stage you can lie pretty blatantly and pay no price since the mainstream media, trapped in its culture of objectivity, won’t really call you on it, limiting themselves to fact checking pieces … buried on an inside page.”[62]

The degree of blatant falsehoods being fed to the public – beyond just the usual misleading statements – in the Romney/Ryan presidential campaign has been much commented upon by those on the left; this level of blatant lying is still sufficiently new in a presidential campaign that people notice if they’re paying attention.  But, as Drum wryly observes, this may become the “new normal.”  “It takes a while for people to realize that norms have changed and to take advantage of it. Lots of politicians are probably still reluctant to lie too brazenly because they’re still working under the old rules, where the national media might call you on it and it might actually make a difference. The smart ones have figured out that this isn’t how it works anymore. Romney’s one of the smart ones.”[63]

All of these changes in cultural norms are, I would argue, changes for the worse.  They all reflect a switching of emphasis from the public to the private sphere and a corresponding deterioration of protections of the public good.  The rise of conservatism over the last several decades, with its adoration of the “free market” and private enterprise and its demonization of government is probably not coincidental to these changes.  And while too much emphasis on the “public good” (at the expense of, say, individual rights) can clearly be destructive (as it has been in so many totalitarian and authoritarian societies), too much emphasis on the private sphere can rob the public sphere of the basic protections and trust that are requisite to a healthy society.

We need a balance between government and the “free market,” between private rights and the public good.  But instead of balance, our politicians – especially those of a Randian bent – frame it as a binary choice, and a battle between the two options. “The fight we are in here,” [Paul Ryan] once told a group of [Ayn Rand’s] adherents, “is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”[64]

Steven Pearlstein has what I believe is a very cogent response to that sort of thinking. In a recent essay titled, “Can We Save American Capitalism,” he writes:

“Were he alive today, no less a free-marketeer than Adam Smith would readily acknowledge that a capitalist system forfeits not only its economic rationale but its moral justification if all its benefits are captured by a tiny slice at the top of society. What’s been lost from American capitalism is any sense of a larger purpose, of how it fits into and serves society, broadly speaking — or … how it contributes to a “good life” that is both individual and collective.

In the current, cramped model of American capitalism, with its focus on output growth and shareholder value, there are requirements for financial capital, human capital and physical capital, but no consideration of what [Joseph] Stiglitz calls “social capital,” [Luigi] Zingales calls “civic capital” and [Roger] Martin calls the “civil foundation.” It is this trust in one another that gives us the comfort to conduct business, to lend and borrow, to make long-term investments and to accept the inevitable dislocations of the economy’s creative destruction.  Whatever you call it, societies do not thrive, and economies do not prosper, without it.

This erosion is most visible in the weakening of the restraints that once moderated the most selfish impulses of economic actors and provided an ethical basis for modern capitalism. A capitalism in which Wall Street bankers and traders think it is just “part of the game” to peddle dangerous loans or worthless securities to unsuspecting customers, a capitalism in which top executives have convinced themselves that it is economically necessary that they earn 350 times what their front-line workers do, a capitalism that puts the right to pass on unlimited amounts of money to undeserving heirs above the right to basic, life-saving health care — that is a capitalism whose trust deficit is every bit as corrosive and dangerous as its budget and trade deficits.”[65]

Piecing it All Together

In this essay I have discussed several trends that have played out over the last several decades:

  • A concerted effort by conservatives and the business community to organize and put their monetary muscle to political purposes.
  • The concurrent decline of organized labor – partly due to forces beyond anyone’s control, and partly because of government policies – and the resulting loss of the Democratic Party’s organizational base.
  • The wholesale transfer of the white South to the Republicans after the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the GOP’s “Southern strategy.”
  • The rise of the religious right, and their inclusion in the GOP.
  • The steady movement of the Republican Party to the right.
  • The increasing prominence of conservative ideology, with its adoration of the “free market” and private enterprise and its demonization of government –with a consequent decline of protections of the public good.
  • The increasing willingness of the GOP to trash long-standing institutions that have allowed the smooth functioning of government until recently.
  • The consolidation of the media, the changing role and status of the mainstream media, and the rise of “niche” media outlets that cater to what people want to hear — talk radio and Fox News, as reliable propaganda arms of the Republican Party, and later, the rise of opposing media outlets (e.g., MSNBC) on the left – and the consequent creation of “echo chambers” in which people hear only what they already believe.
  • The steady increase in the role of money in politics, and the consequent transition from democracy to plutocracy.

Any one of these trends alone would be a potent factor, but woven together they have changed the face of politics in this country – and changed the country itself.

There are important exogenous factors – perhaps foremost among them, technological change – that underlie some of these trends. The increased mechanization of factories is one of the main causes of job loss among unskilled workers in the United States, and in other countries as well.  If robots and machines can more efficiently and cheaply do what human workers once did, there is no economic reason to keep the workers, and competition will push towards further mechanization.   This plus outsourcing of jobs to cheaper labor in other countries has simply taken much of the bargaining power away from American labor.  At bottom, supply and demand matters, and if the supply of unskilled labor stays the same or increases, but the demand decreases because of mechanization and outsourcing, wages will go down. While there are policies that could mitigate this trend, they tend not to be economically efficient.

But, of course, efficiency is not everything; the government could have chosen policies to mitigate the problems for the working class, but as Kevin Drum noted, over the last several decades, government policies “almost invariably ignored the stagnating wages of the middle class and instead catered to the desires of the superrich.” Why? Because the super-rich – in particular, rich industries and corporations – have what both political parties increasingly need and cannot find elsewhere: money.

And why has money become so important? Once again, technological change may be part of the answer.  It is said that the first presidential race in which television was a key component was the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.  Since then, TV – and, in particular, political advertising on TV – has become increasingly important. The amount of money poured into buying (usually negative) TV ads has increased with each election cycle.

If money were not allowed or were severely limited in politics, politicians would have no incentive to cater to the interests of corporations and rich industries; they would be free to do what they were elected to do – to serve the interests of the people. It is hard to overstate how important this is.  This glaring conflict of interest underlies much of what has gone wrong in our political system and government.

The fact that the Republican Party has historically been more aligned with business, while the Democratic Party was more aligned with labor, has given the GOP an advantage as money has increased in importance – and a disincentive to try to correct the problem of money in politics.  In recent Republican-controlled Congresses (e.g., in the current House of Representatives), there isn’t even the pretense of caring about campaign finance reform.

The transfer of the South to the GOP was their other big advantage – an advantage the Democratic Party had enjoyed for many decades before them. In the long run, I believe, the GOP will live to regret this and their “Southern strategy.”  But in the shorter run, it has given the Republicans a solid bloc of electoral votes they can count on. Many of the people who are most hurt by GOP policies live in this bloc of southern states. Many of them are part of the religious right – the “values voters” who have become the “foot soldiers” for the GOP. The Republican Party is now more religious (at least superficially) and more southern than ever before, and this is part of what has pushed them ever rightward.

That the GOP has moved relentlessly to the right is unquestionable.  That it has also moved into very dangerous anti-intellectual, reality-denying, and institution-destroying territory has also become increasingly clear.  The question is why?  I’m sure books will be (or are being) written on this, but this crucial question is one that I cannot attempt to answer here.

Much of what the GOP has engaged in in recent years – to a greater extent with each year, it seems – is corrosive and dangerous.  The endless filibusters, the holding up and blocking of legislation, the denying of science, the unwillingness to compromise, the putting of party above country – will continue unabated if it is not called out.  And the mainstream media has so far not risen to the task (although there are recent signs that this may be changing).  This has all contributed to the steady deterioration of public trust in government.

Add to that the fact that, at this point our Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – is largely owned by big corporations because of a repeated failure to pass good campaign finance reform legislation that would, once and for all, end the major conflict of interest that is eating our democracy alive. Government is indeed no longer working for the people; it’s working only for the one percent who donate millions to campaign coffers; and the 99 percent – at least some of us – have started to notice.

When I was younger, I used to imagine that a democracy consists of an engaged citizenry, informed by unbiased media, carefully weighing the policy proposals of the competing parties, and the personalities of the competing politicians, and voting accordingly.  As the years passed, the scales fell from my eyes – most noticeably in the last couple of decades.  I could not have imagined the extent to which ideology, untethered to actual evidence, can grip an entire political party; I had no notion of the large percentages of Americans who regularly engage in magical thinking, and who are not interested in – and are actually antagonistic to – scientific, evidence-based thinking. I had no sense of just how much more potent emotional manipulation can be than the presentation of facts. I never would have believed that companies that call themselves “news outlets” could be so blatantly biased. And, of course, I simply would not have believed that one of our major political parties would simply deny science – even an almost universal scientific consensus that, because of climate change, our planet is in peril if we don’t change our ways quickly.  Our current political scenario would have seemed like an outlandish and unbelievable horror story to my younger self. Actually, it seems that way to me now.  And yet it is all too real – I’m not into reality-denial.

So here we are – with one of the two major political parties having “gone over the edge” and the rest of us worrying that it will take the whole country with it, leaving only a desolate plutocracy in which all but the super-rich are scrambling for crumbs.  The United States has been in dire straits before and come out better and stronger in the end.  Let us hope that we have it in us to do it once again.

[3] Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.  2005. “Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy,” p. 26.

[4]  The proposed budget of Republican Congressman Paul Ryan is a good and striking example of this.

[5]  For example, Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, recently asserted that there are “78 to 81” Democrats in Congress who are members of the Communist Party (see

Quotes from Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann can be found at:

[7] Some moderate Republicans have bemoaned this process.  In a scathing column, David Brooks asks, “But where have these party leaders been over the past five years, when all the forces that distort the G.O.P. were metastasizing? Where were they during the rise of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck? Where were they when Arizona passed its beyond-the-fringe immigration law? Where were they in the summer of 2011 when the House Republicans rejected even the possibility of budget compromise? They were lying low, hoping the unpleasantness would pass.”

[8] From Wikipedia: “In American politics, the Southern strategy refers to the Republican Party strategy of winning elections in Southern states by exploiting anti–African American racism and fears of lawlessness among Southern white voters and appealing to fears of growing federal power in social and economic matters (generally lumped under the concept of states’ rights). Though the “Solid South” had been a longtime Democratic Party stronghold due to the Democratic Party’s defense of slavery prior to the American Civil War and segregation for a century thereafter, many white Southern Democrats stopped supporting the party following the civil rights plank of the Democratic campaign in 1948 (triggering the Dixiecrats), the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, and desegregation.”  For an alternative view, see

[10] In their book, “Off Center,” Hacker and Pierson focus on this purging process.

[12] It should be noted that current tax rates are at historic lows.

[14] One of the most striking examples (but by no means the only example) is the individual mandate, the part of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) that Republicans fiercely attacked as being “unconstitutional.”  This was originally a conservative idea put forth by the Heritage Foundation.

[15], based on their 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”

[16] The great majority of Americans – not just Republicans – has favored creationism, the idea that God created man in his present form for a long time.  Gallup found that since 1982 the percentage of Americans who believe this has been quite steady, ranging between 40 and 47 percent.  The percentage who believe that humans evolved with God having no part in the process has similarly been relatively steady, but at a much lower level, ranging from 9 to 16 percent.  A greater percentage of Republicans however, believe in creationism.  “Fifty-eight percent of declared Republicans said they believed in creationism versus 41% of Democrats and 39% of Independents. Only 5% of Republicans said they believed humans evolved without any help from God.”

[19] Drum, Kevin. “Why Screwing Unions Screws the Entire Middle Class.”  Mother Jones magazine. March/April 2011.

[20]  Drum cites the work of Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton, who wrote Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. See:

[21]  Heilemann, J. “The Lost Party,” New York Magazine News & Features. February 25, 2012.

[22]  Milbank notes wryly, “How very kind: To protect poor Americans from being demeaned, Ryan is cutting their anti-poverty programs and using the proceeds to give the wealthiest Americans a six-figure tax cut.”

[23] Jonathan Chait, in an excellent essay about Ayn Rand – her background, philosophy, and influence on American conservatives, “Wealthcare: Ayn Rand and the invincible cult of selfishness on the American right.” The New Republic. September 14, 2009.,0

[24]  Unless, of course, we’re talking about social conservatives, who would love to see the government impose their religious views and ideas about morality on everyone else – the topic for another essay.

[27]  Drew Westen’s work has focused on “political bias” in self-identified Democrats and Republicans. His study was published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18:11, pp. 1947–58.

[28]  In an article in Forbes magazine, Bruce Bartlett also makes reference to the “slippery slope” mentality: “Since Hayek’s book appeared, it has been an article of faith among American conservatives and libertarians that every expansion of government is a step on the slippery slope to totalitarianism. National health insurance today, the gulag tomorrow, many of those on the right genuinely believe, often citing Hayek in support.” See

[29]  Drum, Kevin. “Why Screwing Unions Screws the Entire Middle Class.”  Mother Jones magazine. March/April 2011.

[30]  In February 2012, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on income inequality; Mother Jones magazine compiled a set of charts from reputable sources that were shown at that hearing that collectively give a good picture of what has gone on. See:  Additional charts compiled by ThinkProgress, marking the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests, show the same patterns, as well as the shrinking of the middle class:

[37]  In his column, Ezra Klein cites – and links to – several examples.

[41] Frank, Thomas.  2004. What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Henry Holt & Co.

[43]  The watering down of attempts to (re)-regulate the financial sector after it caused the 2008 crisis, in which the federal government had to bail out the major banks with taxpayer money, followed by the resulting Great Recession that left so many Americans without jobs and with houses “under water,” is an epic tale of conflict of interest.

[52]  I am less familiar with the equivalent phenomenon on the liberal side; I welcome examples, if they exist.

[53]   Perhaps I am blinded by my liberalism, but I don’t see it.

[57]  Interestingly, the intransigence of the Tea Party Republicans during the debt ceiling crisis was so extreme that the public did seem to understand that and, according to polls, blamed the Republicans more than Obama for the debacle.

[58] The companies are GE, NewsCorp, Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner, and CBS.

[61] In 2009, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, William Weldon, received compensation of $21.6 million, even though the stock performance of the company was -0.5%.  See:


12 comments on “Trying to Explain my Crazy Country

  1. chicagoja says:

    Nice post. We’re actually a republic, though, not a democracy. But what difference does it make when we’re in reality a one-party system?

  2. Dick Kovar says:

    “Our current political scenario would have seemed like an outlandish and unbelievable horror story to my younger self. Actually, it seems that way to me now. And yet it is all too real –” This is the condition of dismay that I find myself in.

  3. Adam Smith, professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, is I think the inventor of the phrase “free market”. What anybody who is fooled by its use as a plutocratic slogan probably overlooks, or even does not know, is that a free market in his great landmark treatise on “the Wealth of Nations” is a market free from monopolies and the like (monopsony, oligopoly), regardless of whether the lack of freedom in the market is government-imposed.
    In actual fact, if excess of government is simply defined as too many limits imposed on the freedom of the individual, elected governments are only a small part of it. Just think of all the organizations that have standardised their computer software upon that produced by a single company. I have used, on Windows computers, spreadsheet, database, and compiler software packages that were superior to the Microsoft products, and were acquired by Microsoft and then abandoned.
    But this stuff happens in Britain too. When we had Reagan, Britain had Thatcher. She had more brains and style, but after she privatized Elecricity Generation, the nuclear power plants somehow became unprofitable, in spite of the fact that the expenses of maintenance and fuel are trifling compared with the capital investment. About half of them were decommissioned, “British Energy” seems to have bought the rest. British Energy is now a subsidiary of the descendant of Électricité de France. The sun has set upon the British Empire.

    • ellen post says:

      In economics we refer to “perfect markets,” in which there is “perfect competition,” but we understand that that is only a “Platonic Form,” approximated, to varying degrees, by real markets. And yes, this implies largely that a “free market” is free from monopolies and the like. Our politicians, however, seem to have lost the distinction between the “Platonic Form” and reality, and they speak of the “free market” as something almost worthy of worship, unwilling to notice how all that “freedom” (from government interference) typically leads to a high concentration of market power (with concomitant political power). The sun seems to be setting on America as well. (A little bit of willingness to deal with evidence-based reality, instead of mindless ideology, would help a lot, but so far I’m not seeing much of that.)

  4. […] have written in other essays (The Limits of Capitalism and Trying to Explain My Crazy Country) about how our political system is being strangled by “the mother of all conflicts of interest” […]

  5. […] or any other problem that requires a government solution, as I’ve discussed in other essays (see here, here, and here). It is a meta-problem – a problem that must be solved in order to solve the […]

  6. […] have written in other essays (see The Limits of Capitalism and Trying to Explain My Crazy Country) about how our political system is being strangled by “the mother of all conflicts of interest” […]

  7. […] the threat of totalitarianism but rather of oligarchy or plutocracy (as I’ve discussed here and here) – a threat, I would add, that has been exacerbated by conservative ideas and […]

  8. […] [27] I explore some of the reasons why this is so in another essay, “Trying to Explain My Crazy Country.” […]

  9. […] to which our democracy has been morphing into a plutocracy (about which I’ve written here and here), the hill on which we will have to fight this uphill battle will be steeper than it would be if we […]

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