Monday, August 13, 2012

Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class

By Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
New York, Simon and Schuster, 2010
340 pages (with index)     Nonfiction

 Winner-Take-All Politics written by political science professors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson is a history of how the United States got in the economic mess it is in right now—the rich having so much, the poor having nothing, and the middle class losing ground at every turn. It is a clear-eyed, non-partisan look at the deregulation, taxes, tax-cuts, political maneuvering, lobbying, and stupidity that allowed this to happen.

The authors say that “Who are those guys?” is the underlying question behind their book. In one sentence, they explain their premise:  The rich got richer and the middle class was abandoned “because of the relentless effectiveness of modern, efficient organizations operating in a much less modern and efficient political system.”

  They begin in the 1970s when the “unexpected liberalism of Nixonland turned into the unexpected conservatism of Carterland.”  Step by step, administration by administration they explain the challenges the country faced and how an increasingly efficient business machine and its lobbyists began to deregulate business in every way possible, from the way in which business exerted its power to the way that congress became increasingly respectful and beholden to business. The absolute epitome of this power was, of course, the Citizens United case that was decided by the Supreme Court in 2010. 

But there is more. Here are some of the things that I learned from this book and I have used these ideas frequently in political discussions since we read Winner Take All Politics:
  • ·         The Republicans have a much more unified message than the Democrats do. The Democrats are all over the place. As Senator Al Franken says: “Their bumper sticker . . . it’s one word: ‘No.’ . . . Our bumper sticker has — it’s just way too many words. And it says, ‘Continued on next bumper ­sticker.’ ”
  • ·         The Republicans co-opted the Christian conservative movement and joined it to the fiscal conservative movement in a very methodical way (some would say, disingenuous way), making the Christian conservatives believe that their social message was the Republican message.
  • ·         Democrats began to lose their clout when the unions began to lose clout. The lower middle class people who once made up the Democratic Party turned increasingly to the Republican Party, mostly because of religion and race. This, of course, was exacerbated by the defection of the Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. And Lyndon Johnson knew that this was going to happen when he signed the Civil Rights legislation. He turned to an aide and said, “We just lost the South.”
  • ·         “The economy has performed notably better under Democratic presidents than under Republican ones.” But the simple consistent message of tax cuts presented by the Republicans makes it appear that they perform better.
The biggest revelation of the book, as far as I was concerned personally, was the concept of the “super majority,” which, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is the need for 60 votes on almost every bill presented to the Senate. Shockingly, the 60 vote or “super majority” rule was never voted on; it just sort of got slid into place. This super majority has caused gridlock for the Senate and the country.

Although the authors present some analysis and final words after their political history lesson, the majority of the education happens within each chapter. My husband and I read with awe the political history of our adult lives and shook our heads in disbelief at all the things we sat on the sidelines and watched happen.

You need to know that we live in a divided household. I am a rabid Minnesota liberal, and my husband an old-school middle-of-the road Republican. Therein is the beauty of the book. Hacker and Pierson spread the blame equally among and between the parties. One reviewer called it... “the clearest explanation yet of the forces that converged over the past three decades or so to undermine the economic well-being of ordinary Americans.” So we both can answer the political question “Are you better off than you were before _____ was elected?” with a resounding NO!

We learned of this book from my Republican husband’s favorite liberal television show, Bill Moyers and Company. Here is the link to the video of that show’s segment on Winner Take All Politics:

A New York Times review of Winner Take All Politics:

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