Posts Tagged ‘politics’


Ever since the publication of Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, we have been grappling with the issue of why poor and working-class people seem to vote against their own economic self-interest. Frank’s view was that these voters were being manipulated by Republican elites into being distracted by social issues like guns and abortion.

Alec MacGillis, in a recent report, offers a different view:

In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.

The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns.


And recent research, as surveyed by Sean McElwee, challenges the official view that class bias in the U.S. electorate doesn’t matter.

The old political science consensus holds that voters and non-voters hold similar policy preferences. Political scientists relied on American National Election Survey (ANES) data, which suggested that “voters are virtually a carbon copy of the citizen population.” However, that consensus is now being seriously challenged, with three important studies showing that there are significant political differences between voters and non-voters.

In a 2007 paper that forms the basis for their book, Who Votes Now, Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler found that large gaps had opened up between voters and non-voters on opinions about the size of government and the proper extent of redistribution. . .voters are more likely to oppose unions, government-sponsored health insurance and federal assistance for schools.

These findings are supported by a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study of Californians from 2006. The study found that non-voters are more likely to support higher taxes and more services. They are also more likely to oppose Proposition 13 (a constitutional amendment which limits property taxes) and to support affordable housing. A 2014 study by PPIC finds that the gap remains, with non-voters far more likely to support higher taxes and more services. . .

A 2012 Pew study that examined likely voters and non-voters finds a strong partisan difference. While likely voters in the 2012 presidential election split 47 percent in favor of Obama and 47 percent in favor of Romney, 59 percent of nonvoters supported Obama and only 24 percent supported Romney. The study also found divergence on key policy issues, including healthcare, progressive taxation and the role of government in society. . .The splits are primarily along class lines. After reviewing evidence from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), Larry Bartels concluded that “No other rich country even came close to matching [the U.S.] level of class polarization in budget-cutting preferences.”

The United States now has an electorate that votes for what they want and what they don’t want other people to have—and that doesn’t include many of the poor and working-class people who would most gain from a different political economy, including stronger, more generous government programs.


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Robert Reich is right: the standard explanation of—along with the standard debate about—inequality misses the point.

The standard explanation for why average working people in advanced nations such as Britain and the United States have failed to gain much ground over the past several decades and are under increasing economic stress is that globalisation and technological change have made most people less competitive. The tasks we used to perform can now be done more cheaply by lower-paid workers abroad or by computer-driven machines.

The left’s standard solution has been an activist government that taxes the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and in other means that people need to become more productive, and redistributes to those in need. These prescriptions have been opposed vigorously by those on the right, who believe the economy will function better for everyone if government is smaller, public debt is reduced and taxes and redistributions are curtailed.

Reich’s view is that the existing common sense, among both liberals and conservatives, “overlooks the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs.”

But what Reich, for his part, overlooks is that, during the postwar period he views nostalgically and to which he’d like to see us return, there was no shared prosperity. And there couldn’t be. Even though real wages were rising, it was still the case the members of the “corporate and financial elite” were allowed to keep control over the surplus. What that means is they had the interest and the means to rewrite the rules so that they could appropriate, capture, and do what they wanted with the surplus produced by workers in the United States and around the world.

It is clear, during the postwar period, the economic elite wanted both more surplus and the ability to keep in their own hands more of that surplus, which meant attempting to evade and eventually rewrite the “rules by which the economy runs”—the rules governing labor unions, intellectual property, bankruptcy, finance, and so on. And, given their control over the surplus, they had the means to do so.

There’s no doubt the capitalist class succeeded both in undoing many of the existing regulations and in making sure few new regulations were put in place. Or, to put it differently, that the only regulations that would be passed and enforced were ones that favored a growing gap between them and everyone else.

While I’m all in favor of campaign finance reform, in order to level the playing field when it comes to choosing and electing candidates, it is still the case that the fundamental “rules by which the economy runs” keep the surplus in the hands of a tiny group at the top that has the right to do with it what it wants.

An effort to change those rules is what the United States needs now more than ever.


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We already knew that the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed over the past three decades. But the usual response has been that they’re gaming the system, claiming disabilities that “lend themselves to subjective manipulation” and being encouraged to do so by overly generous government payouts. Therefore, the conclusion is, “taxpayers are paying able-bodied Americans to drop out of the work force, increasing the burden on those who are still working.”

That was the existing common sense—the widely shared view that society had the responsibility (in the name of all “those who are still working”) to identify the truly disabled, weed out the others who are falsely claiming disability, and force them to get back to work.

Now we know, thanks to a recently published study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, that something else has been going on: American workers are suffering from an “epidemic of pain, suicide, and drug overdoses.”

Specifically, Case and Deaton show that, after 1998, there was a marked increase in the morbidity and mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the United States, especially for workers with less education.

The changes are dramatic. As we can see in the chart at the top of this post, even while mortality rates in other rich countries were declining (as were the rates for Hispanic and black Americans), U.S. white non-Hispanic mortality rose by half a percent per year. As they observed, “No other rich country saw a similar turnaround.” That turnaround in mortality was driven primarily by increasing death rates for those with a high-school degree or less. And, while their focus is on middle-age, they also make clear that all 5-year groups between 30 and 64 have also suffered increases in mortality.

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According to Case and Deaton, the three causes of death that account for the mortality reversal among white non-Hispanics are not lung cancer (which is declining) or diabetes (which has remained relatively constant), but drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. All three increased year-on-year after 1998.

And it’s not just that white Americans are being killed by this epidemic; they’re also increasingly victims of poor health, both physical and mental, as well as of pain and alcohol consumption. What we’re talking about here is a dramatic increase in the walking wounded (who often find it difficult to even walk).

The question is, why? Why have the rates of mortality and morbidity for white non-Hispanic Americans risen so dramatically in the past 15 years?

Case and Deaton suggest the epidemic may have been caused by the increased availability of opioid prescriptions for pain (although it’s not at clear if the increase in opioid use or the increase in pain came first) as well as growing economic insecurity (which started even before the crash of 2007-08), which may in fact continue into the future, given the shift away from defined-benefit to defined-contribution pension plans, if U.S. workers “perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans.”

What they don’t mention is the role of jobs. The fact is, most Americans are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else—and they suffer both when they have a job and when they don’t. When they’re fortunate enough to have a job, they’re working in Walmart stores, Amazon warehouses, and fast-food restaurants and suffering the physical and mental pains and indignities imposed by their employers. And when they don’t have a job—when they’ve been discarded by their employers—they’re suffering from the jobs they once held and from the struggle to find another job. As a consequence of both having jobs and joblessness, an increasing number of middle-age Americans are dying, committing suicide, and are the victims of pain, poor health, and psychological distress. And, unless we do something about it, the middle-age Americans who do survive the current epidemic will carry their pain and ill health into old age.

And the corporate elite doesn’t want to take responsibility for having used up and pushed aside these Americans or, once they’re disabled, paying the taxes to support them. It has simply discarded them.

As for the political consequences, Paul Starr suggests we may be witnessing a “dire collapse of hope.”

The role of suicide, drugs, and alcohol in the white midlife mortality reversal is a signal of heightened desperation among a population in measurable decline. We are not talking merely about “status anxiety” due to rising immigrant populations and changing racial and gender relations. Nor are we talking only about stagnation in wages as if the problem were merely one of take-home pay. The phenomenon Case and Deaton have identified suggests a dire collapse of hope, and that same collapse may be propelling support for more radical political change. Much of that support is now going to Republican candidates, notably Donald Trump.

And, I would add, support to Kentucky’s new elected governor Matt Bevin and to Tea Party favorites in other states (such as Maine’s Paul LePage, Kansas’s Sam Brownback, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker). They’ve all enacted—or promised to enact—a wide variety of radical measures, from Right to Work laws to restrictions on welfare and federally funded healthcare programs.

We now live in a society in which, on one hand, those at the top have simply disabled the white non-Hispanic working-class and left it to suffer “an epidemic of pain, suicide, and drug overdoses.” And, on the other hand, many of those same workers have responded, out of fear and hopelessness, by electing public officials who are making their plight even worse.


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As Thomas B. Edsall notes,

Democrats now depend as much on affluent voters as on low-income voters. . .The party and its candidates have come to rely on the elite 0.01 percent of the voting age population for a quarter of their financial backing and on large donors for another quarter.

the Democratic Party and its elected officials have come to resemble their Republican counterparts far more than the public focus on polarization would lead you to expect. The current popularity of Bernie Sanders and his presidential candidacy notwithstanding, the mainstream of the Democratic Party supports centrist positions ranging from expanded free trade to stricter control of the government budget to time limits on welfare for the poor. . .

The practical reality is that the Democratic Party is now structurally disengaged from class-based populism, especially a form of economically redistributive populism that low-to-moderate-income whites would find inviting.

That makes the Sanders campaign all that more noteworthy. His current momentum, even if he doesn’t in the end win the nomination, will be squandered unless and until a movement that builds on his successes emerges, either inside or outside the Democratic Party.