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The democratic deficit








Income inequality has deepened

political deficit of working class

By Roger Bybee

 

America’s economic polarization, spiraling further and further out of control, means that  the richest 1% earn and own more than at any time since 1928. This also translates into an appalling level political inequality that in turn reinforces the economic disparities through government policy-making dominated by economic elites.

The top 1% commands 22% of all annual income in the US, according to recent IRS figures. The wealthiest 1/10 of that top 1% –living at truly stratospheric levels–earns more than the bottom 50%.

This has critical implications as progressives seek to decisively put an end to Bush-driven policies that have culminated in the Wall Street smash-up of deregulated "crony capitalism" at home and his endless, blood-drenched empire-building abroad. During the Bush era, economic growth in the US in recent has been almost entirely consumed by the wealthy, points out Nobel laureate and Princeton economist Paul Krugman While leading pundits continually promote the idea that the college-educated are doing much better than lesser-educated Americans, Krugman shreds the comforting notion that advanced education will insulate Americans from economic stagnation and insecurity.

Rather than drawing the conventional sharp distinction between those with college degrees and those without, Krugman argues that the real fault line is between white-collar workers on the one hand and "oligarchs" on the other:

"Highly educated workers have done better than those with less education, but a college degree has hardly been a ticket to big income gains. The 2006 Economic Report of the President tells us that the real earnings of college graduates actually fell more than 5 percent between 2000 and 2004…. So who are the winners from rising inequality? It’s not the top 20 percent, or even the top 10 percent.

"The big gains have gone to a much smaller, much richer group than that…being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn’t a ticket to big income gains. But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent.

"No, that’s not a misprint. Instead, we’re seeing the rise of a narrow oligarchy: income and wealth are becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of small, privileged elite."

 

At the same time income and wealth have become more concentrated in the US; political power has also become more monopolized by the richest 1%. As policy outcomes and even much political campaign rhetoric seems targeted primarily at the upper middle class and above,  working-class and poor Americans find themselves largely walled off socially from more affluent communities, lacking an organizational voice and hence prone to a sense of futility about political involvement, writes political scientist Amy Widestrom:

"Political participation, particularly voter turnout, has declined as economic inequality and segregation have increased.

The political consequences of this growing inequality are a reality that progressives must confront in 2008. First, we need to comprehend the political advantages conferred to the wealthy that distort our democracy. Second, we correspondingly must understand the political disadvantages that working Americans face and discourage their political involvement.

These trends toward sharper and sharper polarization have at least four major effects in distorting our political system:

1) Growing wealth enables more political investments: Growing incomes, supplemented by tax breaks targeted so that the richest 1% will receive 52% of the tax cuts set for 2010, permit the wealthy to "invest" more in political candidates. While the most recent figures are not yet available, about 80% of federal campaign contributions has consistently come from about 1/3 of 1% of the population. This creates a political system where such legal "payoffs" result in policy "paybacks," in terms of tax policies, "free trade agreements," oil-leasing arrangements, privatization of government services, and the deregulation of Wall Street investment banking. The beneficent avalanche of soaring CEO pay (now at about 431 times the average worker’s earnings), investment-derived income, and tax breaks descending upon the richest 1% has greatly enhanced their ability to invest in congressmen and then reap ever-greater policy rewards.

2) Party appeals skewed upward: Political candidates of both parties become extremely dependent on the political contributions of the wealthy, creating a kind of political phototropism, where election officials bend like flowers toward the warming rays of big contributors. This results in policy outcomes reflecting the views and interests of more well-off citizens, as the findings of Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels were summarized in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s superb book Off Center: The Republic Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy:

 "Comparing senators (voting patterns with the opinions of constituents in their states (and especially Republican senators) appeared most attentive to constituents at the top of the income ladder while ignoring almost entirely those or at or near the bottom. Even moderately well-off voters were much more likely–about three times as likely, in fact to see their views on public policy reflected in their senators votes than were Americans of more modest means,"…

"So while both parties have felt compelled to mobilize higher-income citizens, Republicans have found te goal much more consistent with their aims. Flrst the, the money chase reinforces their core antigovernment message. Fr Democrats, it blunts the traditional populist rhetoric of the party…" {pp.1114-15]

Candidates’ reliance on the campaign contributions of the rich also skews the appeals that both the major political parties select to attract voters and to motivate them to vote. The Democratic Party in particular has emptied itself of much of its class-based appeal to working-class and poor Americans (although 2008represented a partial exception to the overall trend, substituting for them a set of issues that appeal more to well-educated professionals without directly threatening the economic interests of the wealthy, such as the environment, education, and abortion. But even on these vital issues, the Democrats have failed to forge a consistent and credible identity. John Halpin and Ruy Texeira’s 2006 analysis  of data based on Democracy Corps polling produced this stark conclusion:.

"A majority of Americans do not believe progressives or Democrats stand for anything."




In contrast, the Republican Party has shifted profoundly to the Right, becoming 73% more conservative in the last quarter-century while the Democrats became only 28% more liberal, according to a study by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. But the GOP’s radicalization has been clouded by skillful use of pseudo-populist rhetoric–vividly explored by Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas? and the re-shaping of fundraising strategies and congressional rules to politically insulated  Republicans voting against the interests of their constituents.

As Hacker and Pierson outline in Off-Center, the Republicans successfully created a form of "backlash insurance" that "increased the benefits to politicians of departing from voters opinions and "decreased the costs of such departures for politicians’ fates." (The discrepancy between the conservative patterns of US politicians and surprisingly widespread social-democratic opinions helped by the majority of Americans is explored by Noam Chomsky in Failed States and Paul Street in "Americans’ Progressive Opinions vs. ‘The Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business,’"  a very useful summary of surveys documenting Americans’ opinions, ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), at http://www.zmag.org/zspace/commentaries/3491. The Republican strattegy has been premised on the loss of "traditional news organizations [ that once provided even modestlycritical news and analysis rather than hyper-commercialized info-tainment], widepread volutary organizations, and localy-grounded pollitical parties," write Hacker and Pierson. In this void of meaningful information on vital issues and organizations capable of informng and mobilizing their members, the Republicans "then craft rhetroic and policies to make it diifuclut for event the well informed to know what is going on." (p.8)




3. ‘Social capital’ concentrated at the top, too. The atomized, fragmented nature of American social life-as captured in the title of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone –has become widely recognized. Conversely, Putnam’s work has alerted the public to the importance of "social capital," the notion that organizational membership provides critical assets and skills. But much less understood is the class-based nature of social fragmentation, which Putnam unfortunately does almost nothing to illuminate. The systematic destruction of unions by corporations employing both legal and illegal means–through firings, threats of plant closings, one-sided indoctrination sessions, and the unreported use of consultants specializing in anti-union work–has deprived working-class people of both a critical institution for democratic discussion and involvement as well as a major voice in the political system.

Closely linked to the demise of unions are majpor shifts in residential p production patterns and the processes of corporation globalization and the deindustrialization of the US, which serves to atomize the political strength of the working class, as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward soberly point out in "The Breaking of the American Social Compact," 

"Changes in the location of production, as well as changing patterns of consumption and settlement, are also transforming the community and culture of even those who remain industrial workers. As industrial capitalism has reorganized domestically and dispersed globally, a primary impact has been disorganizing the working class and escaping its leverage." (p. 24)

These neighborhoods were Kodak people, and they worked that way [pointing], or they
worked that way [pointing], but it was only 3 miles either way. The commute was shift
work, and as Kodak has dried up, so have the jobs. So the community doesn’t have
manufacturing, not Delphi, these are big manufacturing plants that used to employ
thousands of people, and that doesn’t happen any more. So as those organizations have
lost their vitality, so have these neighborhoods lost some of their vitality. (March 24,
2006
These neighborhoods were Kodak people, and they worked that way [pointing], or they
worked that way [pointing], but it was only 3 miles either way. The commute was shift
work, and as Kodak has dried up, so have the jobs. So the community doesn’t have
manufacturing, not Delphi, these are big manufacturing plants that used to employ
thousands of people, and that doesn’t happen any more. So as those organizations have
lost their vitality, so have these neighborhoods lost some of their vitality. (March 24,
2006

Amy Widestrom concisely describes the impact of  the atomization of working-class neighborhoods as de-industrialation removes the economic andsocial spine of many factory communities:

…as economic inequality becomes increasingly concentrated and segregated, work disappears, voluntary organizations disappear, community networks fall apart, leaders stop mobilizing, and therefore voter participation declines. "

Widestrom quotes a Rochester, NY actvitist to underscore her point: 

These neighborhoods were Kodak people, and they worked that way [pointing], or they
worked that way [pointing], but it was only 3 miles either way. The commute was shift
work, and as Kodak has dried up, so have the jobs. So the community doesn’t have
manufacturing, not Delphi, these are big manufacturing plants that used to employ
thousands of people, and that doesn’t happen any more. So as those organizations have
lost their vitality, so have these neighborhoods lost some of their vitality.
 

One symptom of this loss of "viality" is a high degree of residential transiency. Families frequent moves to seek cheaper housing and safer neighborhoods–produced by a combination of poverty, the demise of public programs to crete more affordable housing, the practices of absentee landlords, and the proliferation of handguns and gangs–undermines the stability needed to develop a strong electoral voice in poor communities. Widstrom summzrizes the consequences on voting by the poor:

This translates into difficult political mobilization, because as one interview subject put it, “if I register 100 people in this community, a month from now at least 50 of those people will no longer be at the address they ere a month ago."  This high residential turnover makes mobilizing voter turnout or providing any sort
of political information or educational opportunities nearly impossible.

 

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