Democratic politicians are somewhat closer to the majority’s sentiments; however, we need to remember that the last time Democrats controlled the presidency and Congress, in 2009-10, they failed to close tax loopholes favoring the rich. President Obama proposed very modest legislation that would have recovered a bit more than 1% of the tax revenues lost to foreign tax shelters. Congress rejected that plan. Only one low-level banker was prosecuted for the rampant fraud that brought on the 2008 financial crisis. That outcome flowed directly from Attorney General Eric Holder’s repeated assertion, “that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if we do prosecute—if we do bring a criminal charge—it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.” While bankers went free and got to keep most of the money they looted, and their banks benefitted from trillions of dollars of direct and indirect subsidies, homeowners received little financial or regulatory help in saving themselves from foreclosure.
I expand on this in my book, First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship (Verso, 2020). As we approach election day, the crucial question is why one party offers the almost exact opposite of what most voters want, while the other promises complex approaches like Obamacare that leave the public dissatisfied and uncertain of what such programs actually offer. If we can understand why voter preferences are often not reflected in policy outcomes, we can identify the most effective strategies voters and activists can use to affect policy.
I want to highlight three factors that let Republicans, and Democrats to a lesser extent, adopt policies that voters don’t want.
First, most voters lack information about what government does. Even before Trump took office, biased and shallow media made it impossible for voters to know how well government programs are working. In American Amnesia, Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson illustrate this point: “Asked how the actual cost of the [Affordable Care Act] compares with estimates prior to enactment, roughly 40% admitted they had no idea. Another 40% thought costs were higher than predicted. Only 8% knew that costs were substantially lower than anticipated.” Similarly, voters think budget deficits increased under Obama when in fact they decreased. Voters greatly overestimate the portion of the federal budget spent on foreign aid (in various surveys their average guess is 10 to 27%, when actually it is under 1%). Americans also underestimate the fraction of the budget that goes to the military and overestimate what is spent on the poor. Voters’ preferences, when surveyed, are for lower military and higher social spending as shares of the budget than was reflected in the budget under Obama. Republican budgets push the reality even further from public desires, but the lack of reporting on the actual situation makes it difficult for voters to make coherent demands on their elected officials or to translate their policy preferences into decisions on whom they should support in presidential and Congressional elections.
Second, candidates need money to run for office. They seem to believe one can never spend too much. Their campaign managers earn a living, and in some cases get quite rich, from the commissions they earn on candidates’ campaign advertisements. That means that even if parties and candidates are able to raise large amounts through small contributions from ideologically motivated supporters, most politicians (excepting committed leftists with mass bases like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) still will turn to the rich who are rarely shy about stating what they want in return for cash: often tax cuts above all as well as weakening or abolishing regulations that cost corporations or limit their abilities to exploit workers and customers. There is ample evidence from polls that the priorities of the rich are diametrically opposed to those of majorities of voters. Contributions from corporations and the rich often are funneled through lobbyists who, unlike ordinary voters, have the time and expertise to monitor the progress of legislation and regulations and often propose the actual language of bills, amendments and administrative decisions tailored to their corporate clients’ desires for tax breaks, regulatory preferences, or appropriations.
All this matters, and this is the third crucial factor. The U.S., in comparison to Europe, has relied much more on regulation than on taxation to create social goods. From health and safety to anti-discrimination to environmental to financial regulation, Congress generally passes broad and vaguely worded laws and leaves the writing and enforcement of detailed regulations to executive agencies. That creates enormous openings for elites to get what they want in the obscure realms of legislative language, detailed regulation, and court decisions. Candidates can present themselves as champions of hope and change and then when most voters are not looking act to preserve or extend governmental practices that accomplish the opposite of what they seemed to promise and what voters actually want.
These three factors, if they are not challenged and overcome, auger poorly for significant reform irrespective of who wins the presidency and the Senate in the upcoming election. Politicians, even if they are not purely careerist, recognize that they need to remain in office to advance their goals. Their resulting and rational bias toward policies and actions that serve those capable of making large campaign contributions will be overcome only if voters are made aware of the favors their elected officials grant and the identity of the capitalists who trade money for favors. Making such information widely available would impose costs on both the givers and receivers of campaign contributions. The limited reforms Obama was able to enact, despite the most severe recession since the 1930s and ample evidence of massive fraud by financiers, should make us careful not to assume that the current economic crisis, pandemic-related death toll, and social disruption will necessarily produce significant legislation or social investment.
Trump’s election and presidency has fostered a level of protest and mass mobilization that matches and perhaps exceeds that of the 1960s. What will matter is how these current social movements direct their energies. Will they engage in efforts to educate the public about the actual workings of government, and even more essentially on who exercises influence and how they do so? Black Lives Matters’ focus on the size of police budgets is an example of activists informing the broader public about how tax money actually is spent and how government agencies operate. Similar efforts to publicize the extent of military spending could provide the basis for pressure to cut the Pentagon budget, just as Vietnam-era protests led, under Nixon, to a one-third cut in Defense Department spending in constant dollars as well as the end of conscription.
Americans still depend on journalists to learn what their government is doing. The more than 50% decline in the number of newspaper reporters since 2008 severely undercuts what is still a key source that activists and voters, as well as television and radio reporters and bloggers, depend on for information about government at all levels.
More Americans still get their news from television than from any other medium. TV news was degraded when public service requirements, which forced stations to devote several hours each day to news and educational programming, and which had to be of sufficient depth to meet that regulatory obligation, were eliminated during the Reagan administration. Reagan also abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which as the name suggests required stations to give equal time to both political parties and to advocates of opposing views.
These deregulatory measures allowed local stations to abandon serious reporting about local and state politics and about the actions of members of Congress who, because they are elected locally, were reported on mainly by local television and newspaper reporters. This opened space for greater levels of corruption in government and for state legislators and members of Congress to take votes that favored corporate interests over the needs of ordinary constituents because those politicians could be confident that their malfeasance would not draw attention from the few remaining local reporters.
The end of the Equal Time provision allowed the emergence of ideologically biased networks, most notably Fox and Sinclair, and of radio shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh and his many imitators. Together they propagate an increasingly vulgar political discourse. The din of abusive and extreme rhetoric makes politics appear distasteful if not upsetting for a growing fraction of Americans, discouraging them from participation.
There is much attention to, and grandiose expectations focused on, various internet-based news media. It remains to be seen if activists can create a new infrastructure that can replace the work of dismissed and degraded journalists and can parallel and challenge the lobbyists who monitor and pressure elected and appointed government officials. However, that work of creation is essential if citizens are to become informed voters and if activists are to be effective in focusing their efforts. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to give up on old media. One element in revivifying democracy will have to be a return to pre-Reagan rules that compelled TV and radio stations to support actual journalism and that prevented the emergence of (and in the future would break apart) networks that deliver ideological fabulism.
In sum, a major reason American voters don’t get the policies they want is that they have little information and understanding of how their government operates. Further, they have little information and understanding of who has real influence and what those elites gain with their sway. Winning elections and changing public opinion are necessary but they aren’t sufficient to change policies. Social movement activists will continue to fall short in changing governmental priorities and policies unless and until they figure out how to create and sustain mechanisms that can make the broad public aware of policy choices at the moment when those decisions are about to be made. Otherwise the three factors that let government officials enact policies unwanted by the majority of voters will continue to exercise their causal force, the gap between public desires and policy outcomes will remain wide, and voter apathy and cynicism will deepen.
Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.