Homer Simpson Politics

It is tempting to read Martin Gilens’s essay for its thorough confirmation of what I think I know about politics: that campaign finance distorts policy, that economic inequality reinforces political inequality, that even Democrats are more responsive to the well off than to the constituency they claim to champion.

But it’s worth digging into some of the ways in which Gilens challenges rather than confirms our assumptions.

Based on his data, the extraordinarily productive Johnson administration marks a period in which government was out of touch with everyone, rich and poor alike. Meanwhile, the first term of George W. Bush represents a high point of responsiveness, even to middle- and lower-income opinion.

If this is how responsive politics is defined, do we really want more of it? Leaving aside the Iraq and Vietnam Wars, what remains on LBJ’s side of the ledger are the civil rights laws, Medicare and Medicaid, expansion of federal aid to education, the beginnings of environmental protections, the expansion of federal housing programs, some of the first consumer protections, and some careless anti-poverty policies. The high tide of postwar liberalism shaped the modern state as completely as the Second New Deal of 1935–36 had. Most of the initiatives have stood intact, and if they weren’t all popular when proposed, they are untouchable now—good examples of the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider’s aphorism, “New policies create a new politics.” (That’s particularly true of policies that enabled millions of Americans to vote for the first time.)

Turn to the early Bush years. Even policies that benefited exclusively the very rich, such as repeal of the estate tax, Gilens scores as representing the views of the less well off. But Gilens might remember a brilliant paper by Larry Bartels called “Homer Gets a Tax Cut,” which features a cartoon in which Homer Simpson jumps for joy over a $600 tax rebate check while Mr. Burns, cackling “Sucker,” gathers up bags of money. The wealthy got a vastly larger tax cut that would not have been popular on its own. Its toxic economic and political legacy makes it unpopular today.

In addition, the early Bush era may not have been so much more competitive than the Johnson years, as Gilens claims. During the Johnson presidency, Congress was not dominated by a unified Democratic Party. In the 1960s Southern Democrats joined with Western and Midwestern Republicans to form a conservative coalition that fought Johnson’s policies. Race and region provide an essential gloss on the patterns Gilens sees: LBJ briefly managed to break the obstructive power of the Southern Democrats and conservative coalition, while the Bush era was a high point of Southern dominance.

Having lost the South, the Democrats’ new coalition is more dependent on affluent voters.

Because of the racial and regional dynamics of political opinion, a large portion of the low- and moderate-income constituency is essentially unavailable to the Democratic Party. In the South low-income white voters went from preferring Democratic presidential candidates by 46 percentage points (65–19) in the 1950s to preferring Republicans by six points in 2004.

While this trend has freed Democrats to build a new coalition that’s no longer dependent on very conservative Southerners, that new coalition is more dependent on affluent suburbanites and professionals, whose views—generally liberal on social issues and the environment and more conservative on economic issues—are reflected in the results from the Democratic majority.

In this new party configuration, in which race and region play at least as significant a role as economic class, two approaches should fit in but can’t find a home. “Sam’s Club Conservatism,” pushed several years ago by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam as a Republican strategy, would combine social conservatism with recognition of the economic stresses that threaten socially conservative low-income families. Even the politician who gave it its name, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, forgot it in his brief, off-the-rack presidential campaign. The other option is a robust economic liberalism, skeptical about the benefits of trade and about the dogma of deficit-reduction and supportive of an affirmative government role in rebuilding manufacturing. You’re more likely to find this view in the pages of The Nation than in the halls of Congress.

That these viewpoints are missing probably hints at some of the impact of money in politics. Republican donors, unlike voters, are motivated more by libertarianism than by social conservatism, and, lo and behold, Republicans have been trying to declare a “truce” on social issues, as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels proposed, and replace it with a culture war about economics.

Democrats, too, have been moving in the direction of the interests of their donor class. Take, for example, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. Schumer builds his thinking about politics explicitly around the interests of an imaginary, composite middle-class Long Island family, “the Baileys,” and often claims he takes his cues from what he thinks they’re thinking. But Schumer was among the first to balk at Obama’s proposal to raise taxes only on people earning more than $200,000 (and married couples earningmore than $250,000), because in his world, that doesn’t seem rich. And that’s true given where Schumer actually spends most of his time—the fundraisers on Park Avenue and K Street, far from the Baileys’ house.