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The volcanic core fueling the 2016 election

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | January 26, 2016

Not a day passes that I don’t get a call from the media asking me to compare Bernie Sanders’s 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 Bernie Sanders’s proposal for a single-payer health 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.

It’s about power

This election is about changing the parameters of what’s feasible and ending the choke hold of big money on our political system.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton (Marc Nozell photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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’s 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.”

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail

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” and “McCutcheon” 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.

Sanders vs. Trump

Which explains a paradox I found a few months ago when I was on 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 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 in favor of the rich and powerful, what are you going to do?

Either you’re going to be attracted to an authoritarian son-of-a-bitch 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 bring 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.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

Comments to “The volcanic core fueling the 2016 election

  1. My old (now Dead) U/Minnesota politics professor noted 4 tendencies that can lead toward “fascism. Democracies are a spawning ground.
    1. Growing sense of national inferiority
    2. pent up frustrations
    3. Widening economic dislocation (as you noted in “Aftershock”)
    4. Widened political parties (eg socialism vs conservatives in late 19th century Europe)

    Are these points here now and can they indicate a new political party which Mr. Trump appears to be forming: knowingly or otherwise? For your consideration.

    Best wishes…hope people read your views seriously.

  2. Robert, the human race desperately needs a better way to inform, educate and motivate us to save ourselves from the increasingly destructive consequences of greed, corruption, inequalities, hate and global warming.

    The internet provides us with the right capabilities but we are still not using it to make the right things happen.

    You have been the best educator on the Berkeley Blog but you appear to be the Lone Ranger because no one is joining with you to increase your audience worldwide.

    It appears that journalists are the best professionals to make the right things happen if they can find ways to unite worldwide in efforts to inform, educate and motivate us before time runs out.

  3. I can’t conjure an image in my head where “Trump” and “servicing the nation” together. Hillary will be busy creating the image of service.

    My hope is that Bernie will point America back in the direction of growth and fairness. We need a captain who cares about everyone’s comfort and safety. When we have tons of citizens feeling frustrated in the bottom cabins, “details” infuriates frustrating people even more. When the hope towards equality is in sight, maybe the “details” will take care of themselves. I have hope in Bernie.

  4. Great post Robert. Agree completely. We don’t need adjustment at the margins.

    We need a complete makeover. And the only issue is will it come from a place of fear and tyranny – Trump

    Or justice and reconciliation – Sanders?

    Or no change at all – Clinton, Bush, and everyone else.

  5. Hillary Clinton proposes higher capital gains tax rates on investments held 1-to-6 years, a “Buffett Rule” that would impose a minimum 30% tax rate on high-income households, limits on deductions, higher estate taxes, and a 4% surcharge on people who earn more than $5 million a year.

    These quality proposals get obscured by the plethora of emotional, irrational, ad hominem attacks on her, and by a ridiculous presumption in this blog post that voters “don’t care about the details of proposed policies and programs.”

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