A New Year's resolution for the Republic: Make average citizens’ opinions matter again

Maybe not predictable, but uncoupling public will and public policy has produced a result that was always possible

Published January 16, 2017 7:00PM (EST)

 (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

The question of how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race continues to pepper both headlines and dinner conversations in the nascent days of the new year. And while not as sexy as espionage, or as sensational as interagency intrigue, post-mortem analysis of the presidential election could be more focused on the question of how the American political landscape reached a point where Trump even had a chance; how more than 60 million people could have chosen a candidate so overtly offensive, and hostile to values once held to be mainstream; how the 115th Congress could have policy priorities that run so counter to those of the general public.

Many of us, as is tradition, have made New Year's resolutions of self-improvement. The occasion also presents a chance to pursue a full-scale reappraisal of American civics. This election cycle illustrated a hollowed-out politics; a profound failure of our political system to engage people as citizens. Driving that failure is the corrosive impact of money on politics. Trump did not win because he outspent Clinton — the reverse may have been true — but he flourished, no matter how speciously, in a system that runs on dollars, not citizenship.

In 2014, a Princeton-Northwestern study was published which revealed a lack of statistically significant, independent correlation between public opinion and enacted law. "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens" concludes “when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

The dynamic isn't new. The study's sample data range was 1981 to 2002. And while there’s a spirited discourse about the authors’ methodology and how much weight should be given to their findings, the evidence of a dissonance between the agenda of Washington and the preferences of the electorate are not hard to find.

Look no further than the tax cut fervor of GOP officials versus the majority of Republican voters, who favor hiking tax rates on incomes above $250,000. Or the cuts to the social safety net embedded in the ill-fated 2011 Grand Bargain crafted by the Obama administration and House Republican leadership versus overwhelming support at the time for fully maintaining those benefits.

Gun safety, oil subsidies, corporate tax loopholes, the imbalance between bank bailouts and mortgage relief for homeowners, and so on — the distance between the desires of the people and the actions of their government abound.

The way a political system is funded and the concentration of such funding seems to affect the way that system operates and to whom it is most responsive. In 2014, 0.12 percent of the population gave over $200 to political campaigns. These donors’ views are substantially divergent from those of the public.

But at least as important is the way the money is spent. It buys a form of politics dominated by data-driven PR and messaging instead of ordinary people and their passions.

People support democracies when they belong to organizations that give them voice, that offer them (or people like them) opportunities for leadership, that hold themselves accountable to the members. One traditional form of such organization was the political party when it depended on grassroots volunteers and local leaders.

Although parties tended toward corruption and bias, they also gave millions of local activists a stake, and they brought diverse people together at the national level. It was, for instance, at the national party convention that Montana ranchers and Brooklyn union leaders had to meet and talk.

The parties now do very little of this. Politics is a competition among entrepreneurial candidates who raise money from wealthy donors and spend it on data and messaging. The Koch brothers’ political network, for instance, employs 3.5 times as many people as the Republican National Committee does. And small donor-based Sanders-like campaigns, while notable in their broader reach, are aberrations — the exception, not the rule.

Parties and volunteer-driven campaigns used to contact people. They always sought to get votes, but in doing so they initiated front-porch conversations that gave citizens a genuine chance to speak back. Now big data, fueled by money, allows candidates to target finely honed persuasive messages to a very small proportion of voters. As of October 2016, 70 percent of Millennials (ages 18-34) did not recall being contacted by any party or campaign about the election.

Yahoo’s Matt Bai reflected after the election that “Clinton’s campaign was effectively nothing but a giant turnout operation, crunching data on reliable Democratic voters while simultaneously keeping the candidate herself from saying anything remotely interesting.” For its part, The Obama administration, part of the top-down, nationally focused Democratic Party system, was unable to operationalize his electoral coalition into a year-round political movement.

This and other features of hollowed-out politics delivered, at most, lukewarm results. Unresponsive systems that privilege elites are an annoyance when things are generally going well. They cause outrage — as Clinton learned — when things have been going badly.

Many were aghast at last summer’s RNC, accusing the convention of straying from American values. Headlines hissed at Trump’s "dark" portrayal of American society. And through the lens of multicultural progressivism, it was undoubtedly dark. However, the Democratic National Convention, and its all-star lineup of speakers, projected a glimmering optimism and celebration of progress that was dissonant, even misaligned, with a reality in much of America — particularly the electorally crucial Rust Belt — that was much more dim.

The U.S. GDP in 2007, around $14 trillion, was more than twice that of 1980; however, wealth gains went mostly to the rich, as real median wages remained nearly flat and Americans relied evermore on debt to keep up with the Joneses. According to the Fed, both the middle and working class have seen their household wealth decrease since 1998, while the top 10 and 1 percent of households have enjoyed economic gains.

And according to a sober report of consumer finances, also conducted by the Federal Reserve, 47 percent of Americans would have to cover the expenses of an $400 emergency by borrowing or selling something, or would not be able to come up with the $400 at all.

In a recent bit of good news pertaining to the Great Recession recovery, the White House announced that the poverty rate dropped to 13.5 percent. Progress, but still far from the 11.1 percent record low — in 1973.

The Pell Grant, created in 1972, now only covers about 30 percent of the cost of college for the limited slice of the population who are eligible, compared to almost the entire cost when it began. Taxes on salaried wages have increased as a percentage of total federal tax revenues as the portion of revenue from corporate taxes has experienced a marked declined, from 33 percent in 1952 to 10 percent in 2013.

Surely, it would be a surprise in view of his campaign rhetoric if Trump meaningfully pushed for anything that would increase corporations’ share of the tax burden, make college more affordable, or alleviate poverty. Those were pledges Hillary Clinton made.

But after decades of promises from reasonable-sounding, carefully calculated candidates, political insiders lacked believability to casual observers, who looked up from their smartphones after another unengaged four years to cast a plague on both houses — the Republican establishment in the primaries and the Democratic establishment in the general election.

Each party, in its own way, lacked credibility as earnest vehicles of the electorate's desires. So much so that Trump — a man who embodies incredibility in the most negative sense of the word — was able to capitalize on their insincerity with a sensational, superlative form of his own.

If only a populist in his rhetoric, he won favor with primary voters by bashing not just immigrants and Muslims but also “bought” politicians — tapping into the underreported anger over perceived political inequality between the donor class and the average citizen.

Trump embarrassed his primary competitors and soared in the polls after he asserted in a debate, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do. . . . I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me.” He added, “And that’s a broken system.”

That “broken system” created a dynamic in which a disconnected Democratic party was unable to operationalize its "Obama coalition" into a political movement; and in which a Republican party (funded with the explicit purpose of stopping as much of the Obama agenda as it could) brought government to a standstill, then effectively convinced its gerrymandered, older, whiter, base in midterms to place the blame on Democrats.

The result was a shared government that rarely produced visibly fruitful policies representative of popular will, amidst a tepid economic recovery for most Americans, as the "1 percent" and stocks easily rebounded. Then, ironically, the American people’s growing disgust for such a dynamic produced historic demand for a change agent — something that only the Republican primary produced.

Stunningly, nearly a fifth of Trump voters thought he was unqualified for the job. A critical mass of Americans were ready for someone who, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put it, was “gonna kick over the table.”

No matter the irony, if Trump has done us a service, it is in unequivocally revealing the cavernous depth of disillusionment and consequent disengagement with institutions that includes not only Trump voters but many of those 90 million-plus who didn’t vote, many of whom may have succumbed to what Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig calls the politics of resignation -- throwing up one’s hands.

A party of which 62 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view; a party that has wholly embraced vetoing legislation of which a majority of Americans approve when deep-pocketed industries disapprove; a party that spuriously proved their theory that government doesn’t work by throwing a wrench into its gears, will now have near-complete control of the federal government. Their victory is not one that refutes the power of money in politics. It confirms it.

The continual suppression of the connection between public will and public policy for years on end created an outcome that while not predictable, was always a possibility: the irrational election of a demagogue that opportunistically took advantage of — yes, racism lying in wait, but also — frustration with a dysfunctional, unresponsive system of civics.

Notwithstanding the positions of the Supreme Court and Congress, several states and cities have adopted creative campaign reforms that make progress on all these fronts. Seattle is a good example.

If political fundraising, like voting itself, was a democratic process, then the increasing nominal cost of elections need not change the ratio of influence between rich and poor.

The republic also needs stronger organizations other than parties. There is much to be done to improve civic education, local news media and other aspects of our democratic culture.

Young people — burdened by financial debts of all sorts and the threat of climate change — would do well to place themselves at the heart of these efforts. They cannot afford for politics to remain uncool. Civic engagement cannot continue to be seen as geeky, ceded to the wonks, reserved for the nerds.

In this way, the nation can elevate itself to an achievable standard for all actors involved: step into the arena of discourse, argue your case, form consensus — not by building a coalition of fear, but through persuasion based on the validity of ideas and the popularity of principles.

The inauguration of a dauntingly new political era is closely coinciding with the start of the new year. For ourselves and for posterity, let us extend our personal resolutions to include a collective commitment to squarely face unresolved problems, and in the midst of this dark winter strive toward a dawn of civic renewal.

By Talmon Joseph Smith

By Peter Levine

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