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When Will Winner-Take-All Politics End? (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) November 23, 2010: Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel prize in economics, has ably outlined our American economic history in his book THE CONSCIENCE OF A LIBERAL (2007; paperback with a new introduction by the author 2009): The Long Gilded Age begat the Great Depression, which begat the New Deal, which begat the Great Compression of economic inequality, which begat the great expansion of economic inequality in recent decades. That's the big picture.

Two young political scientists, Jacob S. Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of Berkeley, have examined in great detail the political and legislative developments that produced the great expansion of income inequality in their book WINNER-TAKE-ALL POLITICS: HOW WASHINGTON MADE THE RICH RICHER AND TURNED ITS BACK ON THE MIDDLE CLASS [and on the lower class as well] (2010).

Like Krugman, Hacker and Pierson see Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in a very positive light because of its commitment to redistributing material wealth through legislative interventions. Because of their strong interest in redistributing material wealth through legislative interventions, Hacker and Pierson work with the terms "nonmaterial" issues/grounds and "postmaterialist" to characterize various issues that would do little to help redistribute material wealth to the middle class and lower class. For example, they characterize both pro-choice and pro-life advocates as being concerned with nonmaterial issues. Regarding nonmaterial issues, the authors' neutrality about them can be summed up in their rather crude statement, "We have no dog in this fight" (page 204). Other nonmaterial issues include affirmative action, women's rights, civil rights, and environmental concerns, which the authors see as upper-middle-class issues that would do little to help redistribute material wealth to the middle class and lower class. In plain English, "the Democrats lost their capacity to speak of the economic concerns of the little guy" (page 184).

In the authors' view, both Republicans and Democrats begat the great expansion of economic inequality in recent decades, because both groups contributed, but not necessarily equally, to the legislative rise of winner-take-all politics. Their book is remarkably readable and even mildly entertaining at times. No doubt we should cultivate a sense of humor about the grim rise of radical conservatives in American politics. Whether they understand it or not, most Americans have been the losers in the rise of winner-take-all politics, except for the tiny percentage at the top who have been winners.

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To jolt us into greater awareness about legislative developments, Hacker and Pierson start with the obvious superficial media coverage of politics, which usually is characterized as treating elections of political candidates as horse races (i.e., whose ahead in the polls and by how much, and the like). Because the rise of television has also produced a phenomenal rise in professional-sports on television, perhaps it is not surprising that media coverage of electoral contests decidedly resembles media coverage of sports contests. The media cover electoral contests as horse races. How many American adult have not noticed this? But contests are contests, eh?

Well, no, not exactly, Hacker and Pierson point out. After all, there are many legislative contests that are not all that well covered by the media because they usually unfold in a very slow process and the details are often hard to understand unless you understand the technicalities involved. Granted, the media usually do cover the outcomes of the legislative contests, the actual final legislation that gets enacted into law. But not the boring details of the legislation, or the boring details of the legislative contests themselves, which is where real political combat occurs. The well-known saying has it that the devil is in the details, and this is certainly true of legislation. The details of legislation are the central focus of Hacker and Pierson's book. In their view, the contests about the details in legislation involved are real political combat, not the electoral contests.

Hacker and Pierson set out to rectify the situation a bit by bringing us up to speed about the legislative details that cumulatively over recent decades, roughly from 1978 onward, have produced the winner-take-all politics highlighted in the title of their book. Even though I was familiar with the general pattern of political developments that the authors detail, I learned about a number of legislative details that I had not known about previously, perhaps because of my own inattentiveness to certain matters at the time of their unfolding.

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In one of their many attempts to be entertaining, Hacker and Pierson tell us that there have been no good guys in white hats in the sad story they recount of the seemingly inexorable rise of winner-take-all politics. Radical conservatives such as Phil Gramm and Newt Gingrich have been the bad guys in the black hats, not moderate Republicans such as Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, both of whom seem liberal compared to the radical conservatives. But the Democrats have not been the good guys in the white hats. As Hacker and Pierson recount the story of the rise of winner-take-all politics, no good guys in white hats emerge. Both Republicans and Democrats begat the deregulation that culminated in the economic crisis of recent years.

Let us be clear here. From Hacker and Pierson's account of the rise of winner-take-all politics, Presidents Carter and Clinton do not emerge as bad guys wearing black hats. The bad guys wearing the black hats are the radical conservatives. But Hacker and Pierson see the decisive rise in winner-take-all politics as occurring from the late 1970s onward. In their recounting, both Republicans and Democrats begat winner-take-all politics.

Hacker and Pierson refer repeatedly to the Christian right and the religious right (pages 139, 146-49, 160, 201-04, 205, 234-35). But the authors do not discuss Catholics, except to note that John F. Kennedy was a Catholic (page 202). However, as Garry Wills discusses his fine book HEAD AND HEART: AMERICAN CHRISTIANITIES (2007, pages 523-30), conservative antiabortion Roman Catholics have worked closely with conservative antiabortion evangelical Protestants in recent years to strengthen the voter turn out for the Republican party. Nevertheless, Hacker and Pierson do point out that in the 1980s and 1990s the Republican party "[a]ttract[ed] a huge new GOP voting block brought to the party for cultural reasons" (page 211). One of those cultural reasons was the antiabortion movement, and many conservative antiabortion Catholics were among the new voting block brought to the GOP in the 1980s and 1990s and later.

Incidentally, Wills mentions more specific court rulings that animated evangelical Protestants than Hacker and Pierson do in their discussion of the Christian right (a.k.a. the religious right). But all of the specific court rulings discussed in both books as animating the Christian right involve nonmaterial issues, or postmaterial issues, in the terminology used by Hacker and Pierson.

I should point out that Hacker and Pierson themselves suggest no possible way to break up the appeal of radical conservative Republican candidates. However, it strikes me that Wills has set an important example for other liberals to follow by lining up arguments against the different antiabortion arguments advanced by the different Christian groups. The potential payoff to debating with antiabortion Christians is to get them to stop voting for Republican candidates on the basis of this one issue alone. No doubt debating with antiabortion Christians will be a slow and arduous undertaking.

Has anybody else advanced any ideas about how to combat the well-funded radical conservatives? As I stated, Hacker and Pierson haven't.

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I myself have set forth my own thinking about abortion in the first trimester in my lengthy essay titled "The Catholic Bishops Want No Debate About Sexual Morality" that was published at OpEdNews.com on October 28, 2010.

Finally, as is well known, Franklin D. Roosevelt has long been considered a traitor to his class for helping the little guy. In light of his example, perhaps the Democratic party should try to cultivate more traitors to their economic class to help the little guy. In any event, Democratic politicians should figure out more ways in which the Democratic party might help advance the economic interests of the little guy.

In his 1939 State of the Union address, FDR said, "To us much is given; more is expected." He was of course alluding to a well-known passage in Christian scripture.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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