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Why the 99 Percent Keeps Losing

By       Message Robert Kuttner     Permalink
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Our current political situation is unprecedented. The vast majority of Americans keep falling behind economically because of changes in society's ground rules, while the rich get even richer -- yet this situation doesn't translate into a winning politics.

If anything, the right keeps gaining and the wealthy keep pulling away. How can this possibly be?

Let me suggest seven reasons:

Reason One. The Discrediting of Politics Itself. The Republican Party has devised a strategy of hamstringing government and making any remediation impossible.
Instead of the voters punishing Republicans, the result is cynicism and passivity, so the Republican strategy is vindicated and rewarded.

The media plays into this pattern by adopting a misleading narrative that makes the gridlock in Washington roughly the equal fault of both parties -- with lazy phrases such as "Washington is broken," or "politics is broken," or "partisan bickering." (Do a Google search of those cliches. It will make you sick.)

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Eminent political scientists such as Jacob Hacker (Off-Center) and Thomas E. Mann and co-author Norman Ornstein, a self-described Republican (It's Even Worse Than It Looks) have thoroughly debunked the premise of symmetrical blame. It's Republicans who are the blockers. But these scholars and their evidence fail to alter the media storyline, and the damage has been done.

The very people who have given up on politics, and on Democrats as stewards of a social compact that helps regular working people, are precisely those regular working people -- who see the Dream getting away from them and government not helping.

Reason Two. Compromised Democrats. But the Democrats are hardly blameless. Instead of seizing on the collapse of 2008 as a disgrace for laissez-faire economics, deregulation, Wall Street and the Republican Party, Barack Obama tried to make nice with the GOP, refrained from cleaning out the big banks that caused the mess, and drank the Kool-Aid of budget balance.

The result: working people frustrated with economic backsliding had no party that really championed their interests. The fateful year 2008 may have been the worst missed moment for revolutionary reform in the history of the Republic -- and depending on who gets the Democratic nomination next time and what she does with it, 2016 could rival 2008 as a lost opportunity.

Republicans made big gains in the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014. Skeptical or cynical voters on the Democratic side (young people, poor people, African Americans, single women) are less likely to vote in off-years, while the rightwing base stays ferociously engaged. The more that potentially Democratic voters are disaffected, the more the Right can block any progress on inequality.

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Reason Three. The Reign of Politicized Courts and Big Money. The Supreme Court's usual majority has become an opportunistic subsidiary of the Republican Party. Two key decisions, reflecting outrageous misreading of both the Constitution and the abuses of recent history, undermined citizenship and entrenched the rule of big money.

In the Citizens United case of 2010,the Court majority gave unlimited license to big personal and corporate money. And in the Shelby County v. Holder decision of 2013, the Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, declaring open season for a new era of voter suppression.

As a consequence, the potential role of invigorated democracy as the antidote to concentrated wealth has been weakened. Economic inequality translates into inequality of political influence.

Reason Four. The Collapse of Equalizing Institutions. During the postwar boom, America actually became more equal. The bottom quarter gained more income share than the top quarter. This was no historical or technological accident. Shared prosperity was built on government activism promoting opportunity, strong unions providing decent wages even for the less educated, enforcement of other labor laws, debt-free public higher education, well-regulated financial institutions, a genuinely progressive income tax, and a trading system that did not promote outsourcing.

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Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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