John Peeler

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

My fellow political scientists frequently eschew actual involvement in policy debates and political conflict, preferring, like Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinsky’s Being There, to watch. But Hacker and Pierson, distinguished political scientists (Yale and Berkeley, respectively), launch themselves forcefully into political engagement with this well-documented analysis of how the United States government, since the 1970s, has systematically enriched the top one percent of the country at the expense of everyone else, and especially at the expense of the middle class.

Hacker and Pierson show how big business interests, alarmed at such new liberal initiatives as the Environmental Protection Act (actually passed under Nixon), ratcheted up their national organizations, the more effectively to defend their common interests in national policy debates. In addition to mounting far stronger and more sophisticated lobbying, these interests created and funded think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, designed to challenge the liberal conventional wisdom of the New Deal and Great Society and replace it with an explicitly conservative, free-market-oriented way of thinking.

Among the victories of this newly assertive big business sector was the spreading deregulation of the economy, starting with the airlines in the 1970s, and culminating with the deregulation of banking at the end of the 1990s. Also, of course, the idea of supply-side economics was a direct product of the new conservative knowledge industry, and led to the Reagan and Bush tax cuts focused on the upper income levels (income, inheritance, capital gains taxes all went down, with the richest getting by far the most benefit).

The mass base for this counterrevolution was provided by the cultural conservatism of Reagan, George W. Bush, and other prominent conservatives like Newt Gingrich. In particular, evangelical Christians (most of whom have average or below average incomes) were successfully mobilized for the Republicans on the basis of abortion and other social issues that tended to drive a wedge into the old Democratic coalition.

Simultaneously there was a major assault on organized labor, the principal organized mass base of the Democrats. When Republicans have controlled the presidency, regulations intended to protect labor unions and the rights of workers, have been ignored or reinterpreted. With Democrats in power, an equal push-back has not occurred because the Democratic Party long ago ceased to be primarily a labor party. The result: labor is today but a ghost of its former self.

Carter, perhaps inadvertently, helped to start the conservative counterrevolution. Clinton largely accepted it. And Obama, so far, has done little to turn it around. The new health care law certainly promises to provide better access to the least fortunate and the middle class, but the compromises needed to pass it safeguarded the fundamental interests of those at the top. Much the same can be said of the new financial regulation law: those who made big bucks while sending the economy into the tank are largely allowed to keep doing what they were doing.

The fundamental point of the book is that the present pattern of accelerating inequality is neither inevitable nor natural: it is political. It was the result of long-term, systematic organization in defense of the interests of big business and the wealthiest segment of the society. By analogy, they argue that the left needs to see its task in the same light, as a major, systematic, long-term effort at multiple levels, aimed at returning to a much more egalitarian society.

They are correct, of course, but not completely. Political struggle can bring change in the other direction. There is no other way to bring it about. But political struggle happens within the larger structure of an economy that inherently privileges those with capital over those without it. As long as that remains true (as long as we have a capitalist economy), advocates of more equality and more democracy will always be playing defense.


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