'Winner-Take-All Politics'

The mix of money and politics has reached new heights.

November 17, 2011
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Crossing the Rubicon

The Citizen United case proverbially crossed the Rubicon, but Hacker and Pierson point out that it was the late 1970s when corporate interests first began the gradual but partially successful push back against the political and economic reforms and regulations that characterized first three quarters of the 20th Century.

Those three periods when progressive politics ruled were the Progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the New Deal of the 1930s, and the Great Society of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Conservative and liberal entities alike play the new game, but Republicans have become particularly adept as the power of labor unions has ebbed and the percentage of union members in the private sector workforce has plummeted.

This is true despite recent labor pushback against Republican legislative achievements limiting the role of public sector unions at the state level.

As money spent to influence elections and policy has exploded, Jacob and Pierson address additional influences on the political scene that have coincided with the rise of special interests, and that now work hand in hand with the influence of money to drive special-interest goals.

The emergence of more and more political ads placed on broadcast network television and their local affiliates was a major transformation during in the 1970s and 1980s that altered the traditional election roadmaps. But the rise of network television has now morphed and splintered into multiple cable channels, including cable networks devoted to one political view over another.

While the network news programs still have ratings three times that of the largest cable news provider FOX, as well as MSNBC and CNN, their audience share has dropped from more than 90% 40 years ago to a bit more than 50% in the new millennium.

Increasingly, audiences turn to echo chambers reflecting their point of view at the general exclusion of others. This was called selective perception and selective exposure in the 2008 book, “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society” by the journalist Farhad Manjoo.

More recently, the Internet and social media have joined television as major conduits that connect politicians to voters.

Lastly, Jacobs and Pierson point to the increasingly sophisticated polling technology that has created a new class of very expensive political consultants whose role is to conduct polls, interpret results, and advise candidates on strategy.

All together, these trends are a formidable force that has substantially altered the dynamics of American politics in favor of special interests.

Jacobs and Pierson dispute the common argument that globalization and technology are the drivers that turned America from “a broadland of shared prosperity” to a “Richistan of hyper concentrated rewards at the top.”

Instead, they argue that domestic policies have mattered more than economics and so a solution to the problem is within the nation’s control. That’s the good news delivered by “Winner-Take-All Politics.”

But one of the key points the authors make is the degree of organization that defines well-entrenched special interests.

And a sophisticated organization can concentrate focus and funnel money to corral lawmakers into supporting a very specific agenda either through direct action or through drift—an intentional policy to do nothing. This is a fundamental political strategy to bring the nation’s capital to a virtual standstill.

There may be no better example than the historic overuse of filibusters to prevent majority rule by forcing the passage of any legislation to have 60 votes in support rather than 51.

Unfortunately, most Americans are woefully unaware of most of what Jacobs and Pierson report either because they pay little attention or only pay attention to the echo chamber of their choosing.

The American novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote once said the Civil War was a national failure of compromise, and that compromise is the essential ingredient to a vibrant democracy.

It will be a tragedy if we continue on the current path.

MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president, business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078.

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