Perhaps the most shocking study the authors cite comes from Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton University. Gilens has been collecting the results of nearly 2,000 survey questions reaching back to the 1980s, looking for evidence that when opinions change, so too does policy. And he found it—but only for the rich. “Most policy changes with majority support didn’t become law,” Hacker and Pierson write. The exception was “when they were supported by those at the top. When the opinions of the poor diverged from those of the well-off, the opinions of the poor ceased to have any apparent influence: If 90 percent of poor Americans supported a policy change, it was no more likely to happen than if 10 percent did. By contrast, when more of the well-off supported a change, it was substantially more likely to happen.”It seems we are moving toward a winner-take-all society? Is this what we want? The answer seems to be no:
In part, this is because politicians began to need money more than they had before, as the costs of campaigns started skyrocketing. The predictable outcome? Both parties have been relying more on wealthy donors and less on labor unions. Where unions had substantial support among the Republican Party in the middle of the twentieth century—then-Senator Ted Stevens, we learn, ended up backing the labor law reforms that the business community eventually killed—today the Club for Growth primaries anyone in the GOP who forgets to refer to union presidents as “bosses.” Meanwhile, the Democrats have had to embrace the business community to remain financially competitive. As Hacker and Pierson show, Democrats were at a massive funding disadvantage in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1981, the Democratic National Committee was still paying down debt incurred during the 1968 election. There was only one place to turn to close the gap: corporate America, and the (mostly) men who ran it, or lobbied for it. And so they turned there, which meant turning away from the middle class, at least somewhat. As Hacker and Pierson say, today’s Republican and Democratic parties are not black and white. They’re “black and gray.”
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Behavioral economist Dan Ariely and psychologist Michael Norton recently asked people to estimate wealth inequality in this country. As it happens, most Americans think wealth is distributed vastly more equally than it actually is, and yet they would like something more equal still: When given a choice between various options, they chose the one most closely resembling Sweden, followed by the world in which every quintile has exactly 20 percent of the wealth. Only 10 percent chose our world. But the problem, as Hacker and Pierson point out, is that the political system isn’t listening. It’s time it did.