Tag Archives: elite preferences

This Isn’t Democracy…

Tim Wu recently had an interesting–albeit depressing–op ed in the New York Times.

Wu disagreed with the constant emphasis on American polarization and division, pointing out that there is really remarkable consensus among voters on a number of policy issues.

About 75 percent of Americans favor higher taxesfor the ultrawealthy. The idea of a federal law that would guarantee paid maternity leave attracts 67 percent support. Eighty-three percent favor strong net neutrality rulesfor broadband, and more than 60 percent want stronger privacy laws. Seventy-one percent think we should be able to buy drugs imported from Canada, and 92 percent want Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices. The list goes on.

The defining political fact of our time is not polarization. It’s the inability of even large bipartisan majorities to get what they want on issues like these. Call it the oppression of the supermajority. Ignoring what most of the country wants — as much as demagogy and political divisiveness — is what is making the public so angry.

There is considerable research confirming this point. The opinions and desires of even large majorities of ordinary American citizens are far less likely to be the basis of policy than the desires and opinions of the wealthy and well-connected.

As Wu notes, this state of affairs is generally defended by arguing that “rank and file” of Americans aren’t experts on economic issues, and that economic policies should be developed by those who are.

It is true that policymaking requires expertise. But I don’t think members of the public are demonstrating ignorance when they claim that drug prices are too high, taxes could be fairer, privacy laws are too weak and monopolies are too coddled.

It is also true that majorities sometimes want things — “like bans on books, or crackdowns on minorities — that they should not be given.” But the issues under discussion do not implicate the restrictions imposed by the Bill of Rights. And many of these same policy preferences were legislated during the Progressive period.

In our era, it is primarily Congress that prevents popular laws from being passed or getting serious consideration. (Holding an occasional hearing does not count as “doing something.”) Entire categories of public policy options are effectively off-limits because of the combined influence of industry groups and donor interests. There is no principled defense of this state of affairs — and indeed, no one attempts to offer such a justification.

It is “the combined influence of industry groups and donors” that is the problem; those interests wield far more clout with lawmakers than We the People. They have effectively bought the federal government ‘s lawmaking apparatus–and the governments of the states have not been exempt.  (Thanks to gerrymandering and vote suppression, they have largely been able to ensure the electoral success of the candidates they’ve purchased.)

There is some hope that candidates who raise most of their funds from small-dollar donors will eventually “crowd out” the big-money interests, but it is unlikely that things will change much unless and until the Supreme Court overturns its previous decisions equating money with speech–or in the alternative, there is a constitutional amendment to that effect.

Meanwhile, we can argue about the proper terminology to apply to our governing system–plutocracy, oligarchy, kakistocracy–but we need to recognize that it is neither a republic or a democracy.