TPM Cafe: Opinion

Can Democracy Be A Luxury Good?

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“The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction,” say David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy in the New York Times this week:

“most American families are paying a steep price for high and rising income inequality...Although economic growth in the United States continues to be as strong as in many other countries, or stronger, a small percentage of American households is fully benefiting from it.”

We’ve already seen the effects of the decline in the middle class in consumer-product markets. As I noted in February, the wealthiest consumers are making up more and more of the spending that happens, and businesses are chasing that small number of big spenders, catering to their needs. It’s a self-reinforcing process: reduced demand for the large-scale production of middle-class consumer products means fewer jobs making and selling those products, which means reduced demand, and so on.

Indeed, the inequality in the consumer-product market has a disturbing parallel in health and life expectancy. The growth in life expectancy since 1980 is driven by growth among the wealthiest people; as Annie Lowrey documented in a heartbreaking piece, inequality makes health and lifespan radically different in poor counties and rich ones.

But one of the most obvious impacts of the shift in the economic balance of power comes in the realm where, in theory, everyone should have an equal voice: in politics.

A new Princeton study indicates, as other studies have suggested, that policy tends to follow the preferences of the very wealthiest, and reflect the desires of middle-class and poor voters hardly at all.

There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, but any way you look at it, it’s unsettling. A political process that’s supposed to be about representation is instead, as Kathleen Geier notes, a government of, by and for its very wealthiest members.

Members of Congress take home an income that puts them among the top 10 percent of Americans, and the overwhelming importance of money in politics means that the set of people they actually interact with are even wealthier. Money can’t buy every election, but a lack of money sure can lose one; to win re-election, politicians need to spend hours every day on the phone with the kind of people who have thousands of dollars to throw at elections. Is it any wonder that they think the priorities of the people they spend all their time with are the priorities of the country as a whole?

This is why we turned to fights over deficit reduction before we were done recovering from the recession. This is why pundits and politicians want to raise the retirement age even though life expectancy isn’t getting much better for the people who need retirement programs the most. This is why the only farm bill that could pass cut food stamps, even in the midst of genuine, widespread food insecurity for millions of families.

Just as consumer-product manufacturers are chasing a smaller number of higher-end consumers rather than catering to a middle-class market, our political leaders are chasing the preferences of donors instead of constituents. It’s Dom Perignon politics in a Miller Lite country.

(For a great visual representation of what our economy actually looks like, check out this chart. Most Americans are in the income categories that are getting left out of the political process.)

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is flooring the gas pedal on the trends that make politics a game for the wealthy.

The Court under Chief Justice John Roberts is remarkably blasé about the right to participate in the political process through voting, but they’re incredibly solicitous of the right to participate in the political process through spending. The obvious difference is that, at least in theory, the right to vote is evenly distributed, one vote to one person, while the ability to donate the equivalent of a median American household income to political candidates is not.

Roberts’ slim conservative majority overturned a portion of the Voting Rights Act and opened the door for states to constrain access to the polls. And via decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon, the Roberts Court is giving wealthier people an even bigger chance to impact elections, and politicians even more reason to cater to the kind of donors who have $50,000 lying around to contribute.

(Is it any coincidence, by the way, that we increasingly hear politicians and pundits fretting that our heroic “job creators” are unfairly beset by a bunch of “takers” who are “dependent” on government?)

After the McCutcheon verdict eliminated per-person contribution limits, a common dismissal went like so: “There won’t be an effect, really, because Democrats have billionaires too, and they’ll find ways to catch up in the money race.” These people are, to put it as politely as possible, severely missing the point. Politics is not a battle between the letters after candidate’s names or the colors used to represent them. It is about policy outcomes. And when you increase both parties’ incentives to chase a handful of major donors, both parties will end up adjusting their policy offerings to what appeals to people within a small bubble of extreme wealth.

Which party wins is less important than why the winner thinks they won, and who they think they owe it to. Both parties can “find ways to make it work in the new system,” but who can work the system better is a secondary question to what they have to do in order to work it.

It’s noteworthy that one of the clearest statements of why the McCutcheon decision “didn’t matter” came from somebody explaining that it’s OK because politics are basically sports.

When you are insulated from the crumbling of America’s middle class, maybe politics is a sport where the interesting question is which team wins. But it’s pretty lousy to think that 90 percent of Americans will have to cross their fingers and hope their political needs overlap with the whims of some millionaire. If you think that doesn’t matter, you don’t actually understand politics.

There’s a two-tiered economy emerging, and a two-tiered politics, too. But democracy is, by definition, not really compatible with an economy where access to the political system is a luxury good.

Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He's on Twitter as@sethdmichaels.

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