The Democratic contest has repeatedly been characterized as a choice between Hillary Clinton’s “pragmatism” and Bernie Sanders’s “idealism” – with the not-so-subtle message that realists choose pragmatism over idealism.
But this way of framing the choice ignores the biggest reality of all: the unprecedented, and increasing, concentration of income, wealth and power at the very top, combined with declining real incomes for most and persistent poverty for the bottom fifth.
The real choice isn’t “pragmatism” or “idealism.” It’s either allowing these trends to worsen, or reversing them. Inequality has reached levels last seen in the era of the “robber barons” in the 1890s. The only truly pragmatic way of reversing this state of affairs is through a “political revolution” that mobilizes millions of Americans.
Is such a mobilization possible? One pundit recently warned Democrats that change happens incrementally, by accepting half loaves as being better than none. That may be true, but the full loaf has to be large and bold enough in the first place to make the half loaf meaningful. And not even a half loaf is possible unless or until America wrests back power from the executives of large corporations, Wall Street bankers and billionaires who now control the bakery.
I’ve been in and around Washington for almost 50 years, including a stint in the cabinet, and I’ve learned that real change happens only when a substantial share of the American public is mobilized, organized, energized and determined to make it happen. That’s more the case now than ever.
The other day Bill Clinton attacked Sanders’s proposal for a single-payer health plan as unfeasible and a “recipe for gridlock.” But these days, nothing of any significance is politically feasible and every bold idea is a recipe for gridlock. This election is about changing the parameters of what’s feasible and ending the choke hold of big money on our political system. In other words, it’s about power – whether the very wealthy who now have it will keep it, or whether average Americans will get some as well.
How badly is political power concentrated in America among the very wealthy? A study published in the fall of 2014 by two of America’s most respected political scientists, Princeton professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern’s Benjamin Page, suggests it’s extremely concentrated.
Gilens and Page undertook a detailed analysis of 1,799 policy issues, seeking to determine the relative influence on them of economic elites, business groups, mass-based interest groups and average citizens. Their conclusion was dramatic: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically nonsignificant impact upon public policy.” Instead, Gilens and Page found that lawmakers respond almost exclusively to the moneyed interests – those with the most lobbying prowess and deepest pockets to bankroll campaigns.
I find it particularly sobering that Gilens and Page’s data came from the period 1981 to 2002. That was before the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United opinion, which opened the floodgates to big money in politics, and before the explosion of Super Pacs and secretive “dark money” whose sources do not have to be disclosed by campaigns. It stands to reason that if average Americans had a “near-zero” impact on public policy then, the influence of average Americans is now zero.
Most Americans don’t need a detailed empirical study to convince them of this. They feel disenfranchised, and angry toward a political-economic system that seems rigged against them. This was confirmed for me a few months ago when I was on book tour in America’s heartland, and kept hearing from people who said they were trying to make up their minds in the upcoming election between supporting Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.
At first I was incredulous. After all, Sanders and Trump are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. It was only after several discussions that I began to understand the connection. Most of these people said they were incensed by “crony capitalism,” by which they meant political payoffs by big corporations and Wall Street banks that result in special favors such as the Wall Street bailout of 2008.
They wanted to close tax loopholes for the rich, such as the special “carried interest” tax break for hedge-fund and private-equity partners. They wanted to reduce the market power of pharmaceutical companies and big health insurers, which they thought resulted in exorbitant prices. They were angry about trade treaties that they characterized as selling-out American workers while rewarding corporate executives and big investors.
Somewhere in all this I came to see what’s fueling the passions of voters in the 2016 election. If you happen to be one of the tens of millions of Americans who are working harder than ever but getting nowhere, and you feel the system is rigged against you and in favor of the rich and powerful, you will go in one of two directions.
Either you will be attracted to an authoritarian bigot who promises to make America great again by keeping out people different from you and recreating high-paying jobs in America. Someone who sounds like he won’t let anything or anybody stand in his way, and who’s so rich he can’t be bought off.
Or you’ll be attracted to a political activist who tells it like it is, who has lived by his convictions for 50 years, who won’t take a dime of money from big corporations or Wall Street or the very rich, and who is leading a grass-roots “political revolution” to regain control over our democracy and economy. In other words, you will be enticed either by a would-be dictator who promises to bring power back to the people, or by a movement leader who asks you to join together with others to bring power back to the people.
Of the two, I would prefer the latter. But what about the “pragmatic” Hillary Clinton? I have worked closely with her and have nothing but respect for her. In my view, she’s clearly the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have.
But the political system we now have is profoundly broken. Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have because he’s leading a political movement for change.
This article first appeared at Robert Reich.