“Money On My Mind” is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters) and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
Even as the people of the United States become more ethnically diverse and socially inclusive, our political system reinforces economic inequality. On one hand, a recent Gallup Poll headline reads: “Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Social Issues.” (1) On the other hand, Jonathan Rothwell in the New York Times reports that our political process is responsible for the fact that, since 1980, U.S. income inequality has increased more than in any other economically developed country. (2) The contradiction is revealed on a daily basis. The struggle for women’s equality is advanced as victims of sexual violence speak out and receive increasing support. But at the same time, the Trump Administration goes on the attack against the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, the most important institution protecting people from banks that act as financial predators.
That the political system and its politicians are not responsive to the preferences of the American people is now a staple of the political science literature. Scholarly work by Larry Bartels and Martin Gilens has made this clear. But the full significance of the political system’s wealth bias has been revealed as never before by Donald Trump. His “populism” was nothing but a clever ploy. What has become obvious, once the clutter of his tweeting is dismissed, is that he seeks to advance the economic fortunes of rich men, of course including himself. Our political discourse’s current sharp edge reflects the fact that Trump’s agenda stands in contradiction to the values of most Americans.
The conflict between our culture’s increased egalitarianism and the growing economic inequality emerging from our political system is real. That is one reason why the country’s oligarchs are actively engaged in voter suppression, gerrymandering, and populating the judiciary with like-minded ideologues. One person, one vote is powerful. But that very fact means that there is a payoff for the elite when they are successful in reducing electoral participation. They have prioritized their economic status over democracy, and have curbed whatever private reservations they may have about Trump’s boorish behavior. Faced with an increasingly liberal and tolerant population, the ultra-rich have increased their political expenditures in the name of sustaining their privileges. The result has been a drift away from democracy and popular rule.
No one knows how many Trump voters can be won over to oppose that drift. Among them are voters unwilling to adjust to a new, more culturally liberal and diverse America. But there are others who voted for Trump who were simply fed up with the elitism of the current political system. These are people who, though not necessarily resistant to greater social equality, allowed themselves to be convinced that the stupendously rich Trump somehow understood their economic concerns, and would act to ease their situation. If they are not already bitterly disappointed by Trump’s economic policies, they soon will be.
As these voters become disillusioned, their likely first response will be to retire from electoral participation. But for a politics of increased economic equality to succeed, a large number of erstwhile Trump supporters will have to be brought on board. To convince them to change their political allegiance will require candidates who resemble, as little as possible, the imposter for whom they fell. But because the present system of privately funded campaigns empowers big donors, all office seekers are suspect. Only candidates who explicitly pledge to support an alternative system of funding will have a chance to win over those whose skepticism is born of disillusionment. Therefore as necessary as it is to resist Trump’s attacks, what is also needed is advocacy of a system of public funding of election campaigns.
It is disappointing that the robust and important resistance to Trumpism has been almost entirely confined to pushing back against his attacks on the press, minorities, women, immigrants, and the rule of law. Demands for reforms to change the political process have been conspicuously absent. Ironically, the Trump debacle has created an opportunity to extend greater equality from the society’s culture to its politics. But that opportunity has not been seized. The need to reduce the political power of the rich donor class has been muted at best. Since the election, the call for campaign finance reform articulated by Bernie Sanders and to a lesser extent by Hilary Clinton, has not figured prominently in the effort to reverse the Trump agenda. But that call is needed more than ever.
The American people have in recent years revealed a gratifying, but still incomplete, acceptance of social inclusiveness. The challenge is to extend that to political equality – to the way we elect our political representatives.
(1) Gallup, “Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Moral Issues,” http;//news.gallup.com.
(2) Jonathan Rothwell, “Myths of the 1 Percent: What Puts People at the Top,” New York Times, November 11, 2017.