Back during the halcyon days of the Obama administration, political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University published a seminal study on American democracy that illustrated that:
Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
This threat to our democracy was the product of the fact that, according to Gilens and Page, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
As I argued in my column on that study back in 2014, this stark reality was made possible by the truth that, despite the dire nature of the threat, “Americans are still remarkably uninformed. And this ignorance . . . is what is paving the way for the entrenchment of American oligarchy. How to solve this problem and take back our democracy is the central task of our age.”
Since 2014 things have gotten far worse with the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress taking advantage of the already-diminished power of the citizenry to further intensify their assault on the pillars of American democracy. In a fine New York Times column last week, “The Self Destruction of American Democracy,” Thomas B. Edsall observes that our authoritarian President has “done more to undermine the basic tenets of American democracy than any foreign agent or foreign propaganda campaign could.”
Edsall cites Trump’s effective use of “rancor” as a political weapon as well as his serial mendacity both of which undercut fundamental assumptions about how democracy should work. But the catalog doesn’t end there as Edsall continues:
Add to Trump’s list of lies, his race baiting, his attacks on a free press, his charges of “fake news,” his efforts to instigate new levels of voter suppression, his undermining of the legitimacy of the electoral process, his disregard for the independence of the judiciary, the hypocrisy of his personal posture on sexual harassment, the patent lack of concern for delivering results to voters who supported him, his contempt for and manipulation of his own loyalists, his “failure of character” — and you have a lethal corruption of democratic leadership.
The end result of all this is that “The test facing our democracy now is whether the rules of engagement that make the system work can be restored. Trump trampled on those rules and won the presidency. That precedent may, in and of itself, have inflicted irreparable damage.”
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the horrific Frankenstein monster that is the Republican tax reform that Trump is selling with a hybrid mix of transparent economic baloney while continuing with his never-ending racist drama, sexist posturing, and attacks on the press. Encouragingly, Trump’s efforts are not convincing most Americans as recent polling shows the tax boondoggle to be historically unpopular with, as of this writing, only 29 percent of the population supporting it.
But, of course, it doesn’t matter what the people think. That is precisely what Gilens’ and Page’s work tells us: the political will of the majority of Americans has very little impact on policy decisions. And if this was true back in 2014, it has surely been put on steroids in our current unprecedented and thoroughly debased circumstances. Indeed, with nearly every single objective analysis showing that the various versions of this tax swindle will not deliver much for anyone but the most affluent Americans, the claims of a coming trickle-down miracle persist.
Hence, as the New York Times analysis observes:
[T]he trickle-down story has yet to achieve its promised happy ending. Only the beginning reliably transpires, the part where wealthy people get relief. The spoils of resulting economic growth have largely been monopolized by those with the highest incomes. Pay for most American workers has been stagnant since the mid-1970s, after the rising costs of housing, health care and other basics are factored in.
Nonetheless, Republicans are staging a trickle-down revival.
“Either it’s a religious belief, a belief where no amount of evidence would change that, or they are using the argument cynically and they just want more money for themselves,” the economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate, said.
As Stiglitz and many others relying on fact rather than neoliberal faith and/or dishonest, cynical self-interest know, this will be a huge driver of further economic inequality, taking our already historic inequities and doubling down on American oligarchy. Robert Reich makes the point that one element of the plan—the elimination of the estate tax—will result in a massive transfer of wealth to the very rich at the expense of the public good:
America is now on the cusp of the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in history. As wealthy boomers expire, an estimated $30 trillion will go to their children over the next three decades.
Those children will be able to live off of the income these assets generate, and then leave the bulk of them – which in the intervening years will have grown far more valuable – to their own heirs, tax-free.
After a few generations of this, almost all of the nation’s wealth will be in the hands of a few thousand families.
Dynastic wealth runs counter to the ideal of America as a meritocracy. It makes a mockery of the notions that people earn what they’re worth in the market, and that economic gains should go to those who deserve them.
But the Trump tax plan is not satisfied with simply enshrining plutocratic rule, there is a mean-spirited streak of right-wing social engineering in the mix as well. According to the New York Times:
A key feature of the Senate bill is the elimination of a federal deduction for state and local taxes. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council have sought to end the deduction as a means of reining in government spending.
In high-tax states like California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — where electorates have historically shown a willingness to finance ample safety-net programs — the measure could change the political calculus. It would magnify the costs to taxpayers, pressuring states to stay lean or risk the wrath of voters.
Some see in this tilt a reworking of basic principles that have prevailed in American life for generations.
In other words, the Republican tax plan is a back-door assault on the remaining legacy of the New Deal in that it knowingly explodes the national debt and starves high-tax states as a way to force austerity.
At the national level, the very economic elites that Gilens and Page cite have long had programs like Social Security and Medicare in their sights and a big debt will allow Republicans in Congress to hypocritically solve the debt problem they created by assailing these pillars of the New Deal along with gutting a litany of other social safety net programs in Washington D.C.. Meanwhile, the newly cash-starved blue states like California and New York will also be hit with new budget crises of their own —all against the wishes of the majority of the American people–but very much in line with the interests of the donor class.
What can be done to solve this “inequality of influence” as Gilens and Page call it? In their upcoming book, Democracy in America?: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It, the authors argue that it is still possible to curb the power of money and “restore and extend democracy.” If the Republican tax push is signed into law as currently constituted perhaps this will come in the form of a massive backlash against this naked form of top-down class war and all the ugly trappings that come with it.
One thing, however, is certain: it’s time we come to terms with the depth of the problem we face. The future of American democracy is very much at stake.