The volcanic core fueling the election
BERKELEY – Not a day passes that I don’t get a call from the media asking me to compare Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s tax plans, or bank plans, or health-care plans.
I don’t mind. I’ve been teaching public policy for much of the last 35 years. I’m a policy wonk. But detailed policy proposals are as relevant to the election of 2016 as is that gaseous planet beyond Pluto. They don’t have a chance of making it, as things are now.
The other day, Bill Clinton attacked Sanders’ proposal for a single-payer health-care plan as unfeasible and a “recipe for gridlock.” Yet these days, nothing of any significance is feasible, and every bold idea is a recipe for gridlock.
This election is about changing the parameters of what’s feasible and ending the chokehold of big money on our political system.
I’ve known Hillary Clinton since she was 19 years old and have nothing but respect for her. In my view, she’s the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have.
But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change.
The upcoming election isn’t about detailed policy proposals. It’s about power – whether those who have it will keep it, or whether average Americans will get some as well.
A study published in the fall of 2014 by Princeton professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern professor Benjamin Page reveals the scale of the challenge. Gilens and Page analyzed 1,799 policy issues in detail, determining the relative influence on them of economic elites, business groups, mass-based interest groups and average citizens.
Their conclusion: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically nonsignificant impact upon public policy.”
Instead, lawmakers respond to the moneyed interests – those with the most lobbying prowess and deepest pockets to bankroll campaigns.
It’s sobering that Gilens and Page’s data come from the period 1981 to 2002, before the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to big money in its Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC decisions. Their study also predated the advent of super PACs and “dark money,” and even the Wall Street bailout.
If average Americans had a “near-zero” impact on public policy then, their impact is now zero.
Which explains a paradox I found a few months ago when I was on a book tour in the nation’s heartland: I kept bumping into people who told me they were trying to make up their minds in the upcoming election between Sanders and Donald Trump.
At first I was dumbfounded. The two are at opposite ends of the political divide. But as I talked with these people, I kept hearing the same refrains. They wanted to end “crony capitalism.” They detested “corporate welfare,” such as the Wall Street bailout.
They wanted to prevent the big banks from extorting us ever again. Close tax loopholes for hedge-fund partners. Stop the drug companies and health insurers from ripping off American consumers. End trade treaties that sell out American workers. Get big money out of politics.
Somewhere in all this, I came to see the volcanic core of what’s fueling this election.
If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who are working harder than ever but getting nowhere, and who understand that the political-economic system is rigged against you and works in favor of the rich and powerful, what are you going to do?
Either you’re going to be attracted to an authoritarian strongman who promises to make America great again by keeping out people different from you and creating “great” jobs in America, who sounds like he won’t let anything or anybody stand in his way, and who’s so rich he can’t be bought off.
Or you’ll go for a political activist who tells it like it is, who has lived by his convictions for 50 years, who won’t take a dime of money from big corporations or Wall Street or the very rich, and who is leading a grass-roots “political revolution” to regain control over our democracy and economy.
In other words, either a dictator who promises to give power back to the people, or a movement leader who asks us to join together to bring power back to the people.
You don’t care about the details of proposed policies and programs.
You just want a system that works for you.
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Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. His new book, “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few,” is now in bookstores. His film “Inequality for All” is now available on iTunes and Amazon streaming.