The great and growing gap between public policy and public will

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High school students protest against gun violence and for gun law reform, Minnesota, 21 February 2018 (image by Fibonacci Blue / flickr).

Jon Jetter examines the influence on politics exerted by a wealthy elite while the masses remain virtually mute.

POLLS RELEASED in the aftermath of the February 14 massacre at a South Florida high school, showed a peculiar divergence in public opinion.

While Americans support stronger gun control measures by a margin of nearly two to one, nearly 60 per cent of respondents also doubt that their lawmakers will enact stricter legislation.

Similarly, opinion surveys have demonstrated strong public support for single-payer health care, net neutrality, raising the federal minimum wage, creating a government jobs program and cutting defence spending. Six-in-ten Americans endorse labour unions, which is the same ratio that opposed the bank bailouts that began in 2008. Two of the last three U.S. presidents have won the White House despite losing the popular vote, most recently by a margin of nearly three million votes.

Time and again, when it comes to the most vital political issues of the day, a clear pattern emerges: Americans want one thing and their elected representatives deliver just the opposite.

This, in turn, begs the question: Is the United States a democracy?

When America’s great political disjunction is weighed In conjunction with its surveillance apparatus, the incarceral state and the rolling crackdown on whistleblowers and dissenters, the answer, for all but the naive and the cynical, certainly seems to be a resounding “No”.

This is not what (real) democracy looks like

“America does not have at the moment a functioning democracy”, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter told conferees in Atlanta in 2013.

And a 2014 study by two political scientists – Princeton Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page – found that a wealthy elite exerts tremendous influence on policy choices, while ordinary Americans are virtually mute in the nation’s political affairs:

'Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.'

The tandem reached their conclusion after reviewing the responses to 1,779 questions asked in public policy surveys between 1981 and 2002. Sorting the responses by the respondents’ income level, Gilens and Page found strong distinctions between which groups saw their policy preferences enacted, and which groups did not. They wrote:

'A proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favour) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favour) is adopted about 45 percent of the time.'

Conversely, they wrote:

When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organised interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it.


They conclude:

Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

Who and what have been behind the gutting of people-power?

Perhaps the more vexing question for critical thinkers, liberals and conservatives alike, is to what extent democratising institutions in the U.S. – the media, higher education, and organised labour – are complicit in the oligarchs’ capture of the political class.

Pressured by aggressive labour unions, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s "New Deal" administration was inarguably the Government most responsive to the American people in the modern era. In 1947, the first year that the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled such data, there were 270 work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers; in 1952 there were 470 and in 1974, there were 424.

Last year there were seven and in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession, there were five, the lowest number on record.

By pitting the white working class against the country’s most progressive electoral demographic, African-American, Richard Nixon’s "Southern Strategy" – and, to a lesser extent, the infamous memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Supreme Court Justice-to-be Lewis Powell, while he was still a corporate attorney – were intended to drive a wedge through the New Deal coalition that produced the civil rights, antiwar, feminist and LGBT movements.

Still, even the Nixon Administration remained more responsive to public pressure than, say, the Obama Administration three decades later, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, proposing a pioneering public health program and authoring unsuccessful legislation to guarantee a universal basic income grant.

In his 1979 "crisis-of-confidence" speech – often referred to as his “malaise” address, although he never uttered the word – Jimmy Carter warned of the growing disconnect between Washington and everyday people. He quoted one “young woman from Pennsylvania:”

"I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power."

Carter said he particularly appreciated the words of one African-American woman who was the mayor of a small Mississippi town:

"The big shots are not the only ones who are important.”

Exacerbating the problem is the presidential system of government and the "checks-and-balances" taught in every high-school civics class. In reality, said Mary Ann Caton, a professor of history and political science at the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville, the arrangement is designed to create gridlock and keep the lid on big, pluralist ideas that would more easily pass muster in a parliamentary system such as in Canada, the U.K. and France.

"Bush versus Gore said 'we don’t even have to count your votes.'"

Historically, the ghost in the political machine has been the legacy of slavery and the racism that was invented to sustain that “peculiar” institution and its legacy of capitalism — inequality, and accumulation by dispossession. Historians note the attempts by shipping magnates and the media to deploy stereotypes of black criminality and sexual menace to turn white dockworkers – most of whom were recent emigres from Italy and Germany – against black dockworkers during an 1892 New Orleans work stoppage that was the first interracial general-strike in U.S. history.

But the moment when democracy in the U.S. really lost all credibility was likely the 2000 election when the Supreme Court, by the narrowest of margins, stopped a recount of votes that could have given the White House to Al Gore — who had already won the popular vote. Since then, a string of narrow, partisan Supreme Court decisions opening the floodgates of American elections to unlimited infusions of corporate “dark” (that is, unsourced, anonymous) money and gutting key protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, haven’t helped. And with the proliferation of computerised voting and vote counting – ironically in supposed response to the debacle of Florida’s “hanging chads” – the translation of public will and votes into electoral results, leadership, policy and national direction, has become increasingly suspect.

Bush versus Gore said ‘we don’t even have to count your votes'”, said Mark K Spencer, a former deputy prosecutor in the Washington suburb of Prince George’s County.

Spencer said:

“That told us that the people, their voters and their intentions don’t matter; only the important people do.

You can more or less steal an election openly. It really explodes the myth of American democracy.”

This article was first published on Mint Press News and has been republished under a Creative Commons licence. 

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