Some time ago I described two competing tendencies in the Democratic Party: a populist tendency, most vocally represented by Elizabeth Warren (and now, by outsider Bernie Sanders) and a centrist tendency, probably best exemplified by Bill Clinton. Populists are appalled at the growth of economic and political inequality in American life and seek to challenge and constrain the business interests that they see as the sources of those trends. Centrists are more comfortable with business power and actively seek support from among the politically more moderate sectors of the business community. Populists are far more inclined than centrists to point to the various structural factors that enable the wealthy to get their way in the political arena (“the system is rigged”).
Law professor and former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein has just provided a good illustration of the centrist perspective. Writing in Bloomberg News, Sunstein takes explicit aim at Warren and Sanders in an article entitled “The System Isn’t Rigged.” His broad argument: “The United States is in a period of extraordinary reform, and many recent changes have been made to help those against whom the system is supposedly rigged.” As examples, he cites Obamacare, tougher regulation of credit card practices and tobacco, and a variety of environmental protection measures. “A rigged system couldn’t have produced such a range of reforms, many of them aggressively opposed by well-funded private interests.”
So, according to Sunstein, the system isn’t failing us, the problem is political polarization: we are a divided people, and many of the reforms sought by the left just don’t enjoy the broad consensus support needed in our democracy to get things done. Basically, the populists are sore losers: “ …whenever you lose, it’s tempting to blame the system, and concentrated wealth, rather than acknowledge the existence of disagreement and debate.” It’s because of our divisions, rather than rigging, that we don’t have more progressive taxation, a higher minimum wage, infrastructure investments, and a more aggressive response to climate change.
Of course, Sunstein’s argument depends a lot on how you define “rigging.” (He doesn’t define it.) I define it as a heavy skewering of our political processes in favor of the interests of the wealthy, often but not always by deliberate design. Based on that definition, it is hard to imagine how anyone can comfortably assert the system isn’t rigged. Sunstein’s own examples are full of holes. Just to cite one, progressive taxation: polls show solid majorities of Americans believe rich people don’t pay enough in taxes and would support stiff tax increases on the very wealthy, but no one dreams of raising marginal rates above 40%. Why? The really very simple answer is that rich people—including the relatively enlightened and moderate rich people who donate to Democrats—don’t like onerous taxation. Polls have also consistently showed popular support for an increased minimum wage and an aggressive program of infrastructure spending. These measure haven’t failed for want of popular support; they have failed because of the disproportionate power of the interests opposed.
Sunstein offers as proof of the fairness of the system a list of worthwhile recently enacted reforms. Hallelujah! But the fact that “well-funded private interests” don’t always get everything they want is hardly evidence of a level playing field. (We may be moving toward plutocracy, but thankfully, we’re not quite there yet.) Take Obamacare, which is certainly a step forward but objectively far inferior to a single-payer system. From the very beginning of the health care debate, polls have consistently shown majority popular support for single payer, but it never came under serious consideration in the administration or Congress. Obamacare only got through by buying off the powerful interests, especially the insurance industry, whose opposition made single-payer politically impossible. Not particularly compelling evidence of an unrigged system.
To be fair to Sunstein, he does acknowledge that money plays an intolerably large role in our political system. And he is of course correct that political polarization explains most of the inaction in Washington. But he fails to note the asymmetrical nature of that polarization, featuring a Republican Party that is now so dominated by its radical right that it is poorly representative of its own voters. Significant percentages of Republican voters polled express support for more progressive taxation, higher minimum wages, infrastructure investments and even single-payer healthcare, but support for these measures is negligible or zero among Congressional Republicans. The radicalization of the Republican Party–in part the product of the outsized role of right-wing billionaires in the party–is one of the impediments to popular reform that skew the system.
It is comforting to be told that our democratic system is about as good and fair as could be. It is comforting especially to the already comfortable, who don’t want to hear that major, even radical changes might be called for to realize the promise of American democracy. Sunstein’s message is one of reassurance; it would be more credible if he could express just a little bit of outrage.