Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have explored the evolution of the Republican Party in American politics for two decades. Their new book Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality explains the strange alliance between the affluent and working class white Americans into an ideology they describe as plutocratic populism. Jacob is a professor of political science at Yale University and Paul Pierson is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. A transcript of their conversation with the host, Justin Kempf, is below.
Democracy depends on distinctions between political parties. Every election they offer clear choices on economic proposals. In recent years, cultural issues have added a new dimension to the polarization of American politics.
But the 2020 election added a dangerous dimension to the political divide. The Republican Party has begun to question the integrity of elections and the value of democracy itself. It is not clear how far the Republican Party intends to widen this issue, but the ramifications are dangerous for constitutional government.
So how did we get to this point? Has the Republican Party radically transformed after four years of Donald Trump or has this been the inevitable trajectory of Republican policies and ideology?
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have studied the Republican Party for two decades. In their book Let them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality they consider how conservative economic policies have shifted the Republican Party further to the right on issues related to economics, race, and democracy itself.
Jacob Hacker is a professor of political science at Yale University and Paul Pierson is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. We discuss the relationship between inequality and democracy, American politics, and the possibilities for change in the Republican Party. This is my conversation with Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson…
Interview with Jacob and Paul
Jacob hacker and Paul Pearson. Welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks for having us
Good to be here.
So, your book is much more complex than it comes across. And I think it’s very easy to misinterpret it. It’s because it’s easy to misinterpret the themes. I’ve struggled with how to begin this interview because I’ve been trying to understand how to explain these two competing themes in your book. One is continuity and the other one is change. Your book is about the continuity in the GOP, but it’s also about how to explain the change within it. The reality is it’s about the continuity of the process of change within the GOP.
I found a lot of clarity when I came across this quote, “We see Trump not as the victor in an intraparty civil conflict, but as both a consequence and recent enabler of the GOP’s long steady march to the right.” This line emphasizes to me continuity within the GOP, but it also acknowledges an ongoing change and transformation within the party. So, I’ve got a two part question to start out. For Jacob, was this transformation within the, within the Republican party, inevitable? And for Paul, I’m going to ask how was the Trump presidency a continuation of GOP priorities, especially because many traditional Republicans still remain loyal and supportive despite many disagreements? So, Jacob, let me repeat that question for you again, ‘Was the process of transformation within the Republican party that we’ve seen over the last four years? Was it inevitable? ‘
Okay. So on the question of, what’s happened to the GOP, I mean, we, we start the story a ways back. I mean, Paul and I have been looking at the Republican party and its evolution since the mid two thousands when the party looked fairly different. And we don’t think this is inevitable what’s happened to the party. But we do think it’s been a highly self-reinforcing process.
And the central argument we make is that the party is sort of torn between two central imperatives, or at least perceived imperatives. One is that it has developed a very strong tie with the winners in a winner take all economy with the very, very, very rich billionaire donors and with corporate groups, particularly the more conservative well-organized corporate groups and that alliance goes back a long ways, but it really solidifies in the 1990s and early two thousands. And so that’s one powerful set of pressures on the GOP. We’re seeing massively rising inequality and the Republican party is siding with the winners of this kind of winner take all inequality. Both it’s getting direct financial support from them, and it’s sort of endorsing policy positions that are consistent with the priorities of the super rich, like big tax cuts for corporations and the affluent.
So, the other imperative is the obvious one for a party. They need to win elections. And so as we were thinking about the Republican party’s evolution, we became increasingly aware that this is a long-standing dilemma for conservative parties. They’ve long been siding with the wealthy, but in the development of these parties, they’ve again and again, faced this question of, well, how do we stick with the wealthy, but also get the votes of lots of people who are not in that select group. And that dilemma, we borrow from the political scientist, Dan Ziblatt. We call it the conservative dilemma.
That dilemma becomes more and more acute for the Republican party. As it becomes more and more aligned with the plutocrats. And so what becomes self-reinforcing is that in order to keep its voters in the fold, and these voters are white, they’re increasingly working class, you know, the society is becoming more diverse, so Republicans are having to double down on the strategies they use to attract white voters and they’re attracting more and more white voters without a college degree.
So as they’re trying to get these voters into the fold, they have to figure out how to reconcile that with their Alliance, with the super rich, with plutocracy. And what becomes self-reinforcing is that the strategies that they choose, which involve instead of challenging Plutocracy, is basically trying to attract these voters with racial and cultural and social appeals, and with a kind of tribalism of us versus them. Well, that is highly self-reinforcing.
So , they’re basically caught between their desire to serve the rich and the need to win elections, and what results is not a moderation on economic policy, but like a party that is using right wing cultural appeals to attract voters, but then delivering for those at the very top, for the plutocrats.
So, maybe I asked this question backwards. Paul, why don’t you step in and explain how the Republican party has continued to change over the past four years specifically? Because Jacob did a really good job of explaining how its transformation has been a process that dates back decades. How has the Republican party changed over the past four years or continued to change if you will?
Well, I think I actually, liked your original question because there’s this, I think a complicated combination of continuity and change. And one thing that we’re keen to emphasize is that an important element of continuity between the Trump administration and prior Republican administrations, think back to the George W. Bush administration in particular, is they put a very high priority on providing policy wins for the wealthy and for big corporations. Trump’s rhetoric around these kinds of issues which was very different from W’s, but with even more regressive tax cuts, even more deregulation, even more extreme economic conservatives being placed on the courts.
I mean, these are all huge, huge wins. And I think represent an important element of continuity that if you just paid attention to what Trump said as opposed to what his administration did and what Congress did, you would miss all of that, which is why we have a chapter in the book that talks about the relationship between the populous forces and these, what’s sometimes called the establishment within the Republican party, over the last four years that we call a ‘Very Civil War.’ There is really important conflict, and I think it’s become more evident in the last few months.
But there was a pretty clear alliance there. Mitch McConnell embodied a lot of it that delivered big, big benefits for what we broadly call the plutocratic elements of the party, but there is, I think, important change over time. And I think this is something we’re likely to explore, through the remainder of this podcast, you know, Jacob already started to describe this. There’s an intensification that goes on. We don’t see the transformation as inevitable. We strive in the book to show that there’ve been, you can think of it as sort of like, off ramps on the road that the Republican party has been traveling.
So, you can go back and look at people like Jack Kemp or John McCain, especially in his first run for the white house in 2000, where he really positioned himself as a reformer and somebody who was genuinely interested in delivering tangible benefits to the middle class, in contrast to George W. Bush. But over time, those off ramps are less frequent and less likely to be taken.
And we’ve seen this intensification really over the last four years even playing out since the 2020 election, I think, as the kind of dynamic that Jacob highlighted which is having turned to very aggressive efforts to mobilize white working class voters, in particular, around identity issues that the apparatus of the party created. And then the way in which that became personified in Donald Trump has clearly created a kind of feedback loop that has, you know, just push the Republican party further and further in that direction.
So it’s easy to understand the politics of inequality when we think about tax cuts, because somebody gets a tax cut and it’s oftentimes the wealthiest. But many of those policies include things like deregulation or cutting benefits on different policies for the middle class and the poor regarding deregulation. I find that this topic has become increasingly complicated. The auto regulations regarding the environment during the Obama administration is one example that you bring up in the book. And just this past Thursday. General Motors announced that it’s going to produce 100% electric vehicles starting in 2035 and it’s moving in a direction to become completely carbon neutral.
The Obama auto regulation, and the rollback of those during the Trump administration, was very controversial because the automakers were either opposed to it or, to some degree, indifferent. I’d like to understand why the Republicans felt the need to go beyond the comfort level of corporate America in its embrace of deregulation, in this instance, and maybe even others.
Well, if you look across countries, the Republican party is really a stark outlier. And I think what both Paul and I are saying is that it’s an outlier in two respects. One, it’s an outlier in how conservative it is not just on what are seen as kind of social identity issues like immigration, but also, on economic issues and environmental issues like climate change. The comparative evidence is clear that the Republican party and its climate change denialism is a stark outlier even compared with conservative parties elsewhere.
And so, the package that Republicans are offering is distinctively conservative. And we’re arguing that the package that it’s providing to those at the top and to corporations involves a really strong economic conservatism and that the package that it’s providing to its increasingly white, non-urban, and working class voters is really heavily in the camp of racial and cultural conservatism.
And I say that because, there are elements of the business community that are not as starkly conservative economically as the Republicans are, but the party has become on a whole host of issues, really beholden, not just to corporate interests, but to the most conservative corporate interests and often the most narrow corporate interests.
And so climate change denialism is a stark example because there are definitely energy interests and States that are relying on energy interests that have a lot of reason to want to embrace the most conservative positions and the most deregulatory positions: get out of the Paris agreement; get rid of all of these rules, even rules the auto industry had come to live with, or even support.
And with financial regulation too, there are probably segments of the business community that are like, we are happy to have some sensible regulation, but the most conservative segments of the business community are kind of driving the train. And so, this is a very unusual policy package. And I do think that, if you kind of aggregated the Republicans conservative economic positions together, some business groups are going to be more or less favorable towards them. But if you think about the most powerful business groups, and you think about the groups that have the greatest interest in specific areas, they’ve been pulling the party far to the right.
And I think one thing to remember, is that the two big players in terms of corporate groups are the Chamber of Commerce, which has become much more Republican oriented and much more conservative, though it is now a little worried about how far the party has gone, and the Koch network. So, the Koch network, founded by Charles and David Koch, and now still led by Charles Koch though, he’s sort of handing off the reins, is a really huge organization, Americans for Prosperity, massive donor network, those folks.
Again, they are a little worried about where the party is going, but they’ve been pulling it really far to the right for a very long time. So, I don’t think it’s that surprising that you might have business dissent. The question is whether or not you can understand the Republicans overall stance of massive deregulation, massive tax cuts for corporations and the rich and hugely pro-business court appointments. Whether you can understand those, is pretty aligned with the interest of, and demands of, those at the very top. And I think at least until recently, the answer is clearly, yes.
I just want to jump in with one thing on this. So, the book that we wrote before Let them Eat Tweets, the immediately prior book, was called American Amnesia and it really explored, I think in a lot of ways, the fundamental question you’re getting at here, Justin, which is if the Republican party has pushed on economic policy in a way that really undercuts the role of government in a modern economy, and that’s actually quite problematic, for modern capitalism is quite problematic, for much of American industry over the long run.
And we demonstrate in the book that modern American capitalism, very much, relied upon extensive government intervention. It’s inevitable in a modern economy that you’re going to have a lot of government and so there is this tension in which the party, at one level, has become very pro-business, but with a particular idea of what that means to be pro-business that not all business groups are going to sign onto all the time. And where we actually think It needs to be explored why these groups, like the Chamber, actually have been so willing to pursue aspects of this agenda that are probably not healthy for American capitalism over the long run.
And an important part of the explanation for that, we think, is for the Chamber, and for the party more broadly, is that they basically sold themselves to whoever the producer is in a particular sector: the modern robber barons. So, climate policy is not just being shaped by business interests. It’s really being shaped by the fossil fuel industry, which has it’s own very narrow set of interests.
And that shows up in the fuel emission standards where the auto companies are ambivalent, partly because California has its own standards and they worry about that, but also because they recognize that climate change is a reality and that the future of their industry is going to be making more fuel efficient cars, but from the point of view of the fossil fuel industry, there’s none of that ambivalence. They just want to be able to dig up and burn as much of this stuff as they can.
And it’s fascinating, as Jacob was saying, the Republican party is a big, big outlier among conservative parties, not just embracing some skepticism about government regulation, but in saying, basically, we’re going to advance the interest of this narrow sector of the economy over the overall interest of the business community.
The New York Times had an article about the Polish Law and Justice Party a few months ago, which is a very far right party, very dangerous to the idea of the rule of law and democracy, and emphasizing how they had combined the idea of identity politics along with very large government largesse. In terms of social programs, the idea of welfare chauvinism comes up a lot in the literature in Eastern Europe. So, I agree. The right around the world is not as fiscally conservative as it is in the United States. Margaret Tavits. and Natalia Letki had an article in the American Political Science Review, they called it, “When Left is Right: Party Ideology and Policy in Post-Communist Europe,” where they said oftentimes the right-wing parties in East central Europe are actually farther to the left economically and the left wing parties are actually oftentimes defending the Neo liberal policies, ironically.
But I’d like to ask regarding regulation a little bit deeper. Clearly there’s divisions within the business community, but part of your argument is the idea that the economic policies of the Republican party are unpopular among the white working class. But citizens are oftentimes opposed to certain types of regulation. One that comes to my mind is OSHA, which has been an incredible organization to save so many lives, but if you talk to people who are in white working class jobs, manual labor jobs, they’re oftentimes frustrated at the regulations that OSHA demands for them to keep themselves safe. There’s oftentimes a lot of resistance from them having to obey those types of regulations. Do you feel that the Republican party through some of the policies that centralize wealth are still able to tap into white resentment, or working class resentment, maybe is a better phrase?
Well, I think, they clearly are able to, and, interestingly, the book that Paul was talking about, American Amnesia, a big part of it is that the one thing you can get the super rich and working class to agree on is distrust of government. It’s just that their basis for distrust of government is totally different. The super rich don’t like to have their profits taken or their businesses regulated, and the working class doesn’t trust government, because they think the super rich are running the show, which is often the case.
So, I mean, let’s go back to your point about welfare chauvinism. So, like three quick things, one is, the fact that we’re starting to compare Polish and Hungarian and politics to American politics should deeply worry us. Right. And so we think that that the end point of this process within the Republican party is this weakened commitment to democracy and, indeed, hostility to democracy, which we can talk more about. So I just want to put that on the table. The other thing is the combo that you talk about. This kind of welfare chauvinist combo where conservative parties are both trying to spend money on their electoral base and riling them up with identity politics.
That model is what you often would expect. And it’s not the model you see in the United States. So, I don’t know how Republican voters feel about OSHA, but we do know how they feel about massive stimulus checks or taking away healthcare. The fact is that if you start to look at the surveys, the Republican priority of cutting taxes for the rich, as opposed to protecting middle-class or expanding middle-class benefits, it’s super unpopular. And so, you mentioned the work of Tavits, but we cite a paper, by Tavits and Potter, that shows that when you see inequality rising, conservative parties are faced with this dilemma. And they tend to want to identify these kinds of social issues to get voters who are not that into their inequality imbedding program to support them.
And so that’s just to come full circle here. That’s I think the real story is. That Republicans are pursuing a path, one that is, I think, increasingly hostile to democracy that basically offers division, distraction, anger, tribalistic reaction to its core voters rather than direct material benefits. And that’s why we titled the book, Let them Eat tweets. We’re not sure whether we can keep calling it, Let them Eat Tweets, given that Donald Trump has been taken off Twitter, but the idea is, like, they’re not getting the kind of material benefits that these welfare chauvinist parties elsewhere are providing. And that raises a really fundamental puzzle. Like, who’s calling the shots and how are they getting away with it?
So Paul, is economic inequality. Incompatible with democracy? You mentioned how a lot of these policies are undermining capitalism. Capitalism obviously produces economic inequality. So, is economic inequality itself incompatible with democracy?
I think the answer to that is clearly, no. It’s not incompatible with democracy, because this is the human experience. Those countries that we tend to think of as qualifying as democracies, and of course they’re all quite imperfect as democracies, they all have a lot of inequality. Market economies are going to have, or what would we prefer to call mixed economies, are going to have a lot of inequality. The question is how much inequality can they have without putting their democratic features in jeopardy.
And so, if you go back to the early 1970s, I think one thing that people would be surprised by is that the U S income distribution did not look different really from that of many European countries. I mean, it was a little bit on the more unequal side. And there were clearly some social democratic countries that had significantly lower levels of income inequality, but the U.S. fit very comfortably in that world. And when you look at the share of income at the top 1%, which we think is an important thing to look at. Not just what’s happening in the middle, but what’s happening at the top. Many European countries had higher 1% income shares than the United States. Germany did. Sweden did. But there’s been a radical transformation over the half century since then.
It’s not just that the U S. has moved away from the level of inequality that it had in the 1970s. it’s done so in a way that is quite different from what’s happened in other countries, which have typically seen a little bit of a growth of inequality, but nothing like what has been experienced in the U.S. where the income share of the top 1% is doubled and the income share of the top 10th of 1% has quadrupled. That is a big, big shift. In the balance of economic power. It’s a big shift in what those at the top are going to care about, and what they’re going to want, and the extent to which it’s likely to diverge from the economic interests of other voters.
So, you know, a certain level of inequality seems to be, I guess I would say, it’s a price you pay for having a market economy work reasonably well and to create the kinds of incentives that you want. But once that inequality reaches a high enough level, it starts to produce a series of really difficult challenges for democracy. And the U.S. I think pretty clearly has moved well beyond the level of inequality that seems compatible with stable democracy.
Milton Friedman in the 1960s used the argument that capitalism reduced economic inequality as one of his arguments for capitalism, because he could look in the 1960s and see how American inequality was reducing, while he could look at different social status within the Soviet union and say, see, the American system works, it reduces inequality.
Piketty talks about the same thing, about how inequality was reducing for a long time, then it turned a corner and started to increase. Have either of you, or both of you, read the recent book that came out a few months before yours, Deaths of Despair?
I have, yeah.
That’s a really, really great book. It kind of dovetails with what you’re talking about, because. It talks about how white working class Americans are struggling, how there are real challenges for them. But what I think is interesting to me is how its conclusion, or its recommendation, is we need single payer national health insurance, which is something that working class, white Americans seem very opposed to or at least not willing to vote for candidates who support it. Can you envision a Republican candidate in the future, turning the tables on the party, and championing the idea of single payer, national healthcare or Medicare for all, while at the same time, maintaining the white identity politics?
Yeah, well, that’s a great question. And you know, the book, Deaths of Despair by the Nobel Laureate, Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case, is just really a brilliant book. And what I most appreciate about it, is here’s two economists where they are talking about the fundamental issue as an imbalance of power.
And that’s really what we’re writing about too. That it’s not just that the rich have gotten richer. It’s that workers, labor, has lost ground relative to employers. It’s that the balance of power in American society has really shifted away from the middle class, and that has worked itself out through both parties. But a big insight we took from Dan Ziblatt’s work is that it’s really the conservative parties that face the greatest strains in the context of high and rising inequality.
And so, we tell the story in the book of Richard Nixon, who was trying to put together a package that looks like what you were just describing. He supported national health insurance through mandated employer benefits. He wanted to put in place some kind of guaranteed basic income. He massively expanded social security benefits. He courted labor unions, and he also of course used racist rhetoric, and cultural identity politics, very skillfully.
And so that model exists, but it’s very hard to find examples of politicians who are going in that direction, because of the way in which the party has tied itself so closely to the priorities and organizations of plutocracy. So people talk about Josh Hawley, for example. But Josh Hawley is against raising the minimum wage, which has like 90% support, and probably 70% support among Republicans. Josh Hawley hasn’t called for expanded health care. He supported the legislation that almost passed in 2017 to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And so you’ve got to ask why that position? Cause I think there are such voters out there and, moreover, a lot of the things we’re talking about are really popular.
Sure. People might blanche at the term single payer, but if you say, ‘Do you want to like expand Medicare or give people better social security benefits?’ these are popular aims. And I think it has a lot to do with the way in which the coalition of the Republican party has evolved. And Donald Trump was like the truest sort of demonstration of that. A lot of his support came because during the campaign, he adopted more economically populist positions. You know, we don’t want to overstate that, but he said he wouldn’t ever touch Medicaid. He believed, he was going to come up with a better healthcare plan.
He wanted the Republican party to become a workers’ party and people really thrilled to that within the Republican party and that’s why he trashed his opponents during the primary. So the demand is there, at least among a subset of Republicans. But when he got into office, he allied himself with congressional Republicans. And he pursued an agenda that by the end of 2017, Mitch McConnell said, had produced the best year for conservatives in 30 years. So, . later Trump broke more from the establishment party, but he didn’t break from them for the most part.
No, he broke from them by pursuing an even more divisive, even more reactionary, kind of right-wing populist approach. And so, whether or not there would be something different emerging in the Republican party, so far, we’ve just not seen it and it’s worth asking, ‘Why not?’ I think a lot of it has to do with the coalitional bases of the party.
But he did at the very end, ask the party to increase the size of the stimulus checks to $2,000. And we can debate whether or not that was a genuine request or, if it was just something he demanded… Was there a path for Trump to completely break from the ultra rich while he was in office and say the best way to deliver healthcare is to do Medicare for all. Here’s my plan. It’s essentially what Bernie Sanders is asking for. Was there a way for him to do that or would the Republicans have revolted. And would that have been safer or more dangerous for democracy if he had taken that step?
I don’t put much stock in his last second statement in favor of larger stimulus checks after the deal had already been signed off on, including by his treasury secretary. I think that’s kind of typical Trump not paying attention and then just flailing with something. But I, I think you want to go back to 2017 to really ask your question. And I think at that point, the answer is pretty clear. Trump had no particular interest in pursuing anything like this kind of agenda. We document this in the book. He basically put congressional Republicans in charge of most aspects of economic policy.
You know, the healthcare bill, the tax cut bill, these were all really orchestrated mostly in Congress, which was a place where the more plutocratic elements of the party are very well-established. But even within the Trump administration, decisions about personnel were largely handed over to Mike Pence, who was very closely connected to the Koch brothers network, and drew on it very heavily in staffing key agencies that were involved with designing economic policy.
So, that was the marriage. Now, if Trump had actually cared about policy, which he doesn’t, then you could imagine a different kind of scenario, I think, and, you know, the cross national evidence about that, I think, suggests that that would have been a very potent political combination. And we’ve talked about Eastern Europe, but you can also look at places like India or Brazil, or Turkey, for example. Huge infrastructure spending of the kind that, that Trump kept on promising, but never delivered. Those politicians have been enormously successful, so for the U.S., I think the question is, could Trump have done that?
And I think our book suggests that in 2017, it would have been difficult given the way the American political system is designed in which Congress is fairly independent. And you actually have to pass legislation. They could pass these huge regressive tax cuts, not clear to me that Donald Trump could have gotten his party to support big infrastructure spending of the kind that that took place in Turkey.
Brazil might be the best example where Bolsonaro during the pandemic has been able to put together a massive welfare program that distributes out cash to the less fortunate in a way that’s been explained as larger than anything that the Workers Party ever put together. Amy Erica Smith was on the podcast, she said that really, the election prospects of Bolsonaro may actually come down to whether or not they can maintain that program. Whether or not they have to pull it back because they just don’t have the money.
You know, there’s also a dynamic like that in Turkey where the huge expansion of infrastructure spending is running up against tough economic limits. And as the government starts to dial things back, the popularity of the government is falling as well. So, there are other challenges involved here, but at least in the sort of short to medium run, I think it’s clear that more genuinely economic populous thrust from these kinds of governments, makes you a lot more popular.
Yeah. And Justin, just to say, because this comes back to your earlier point, you mentioned, fiscal conservative parties, but in fact, the Republicans were super willing to spend, enormous amounts on tax cuts, to cut government revenues dramatically, and then, in the face of a crisis, they were willing to spend as well. The crucial thing here is not fiscal conservatism. The crucial thing has been what Republicans are willing to spend on. So, I think you’re right, that there was a potential, if Trump had been more interested in policy, and more genuinely economically populous for different kinds of cleavages emerging. But he wasn’t.
And we wrote the epilogue for the book that should be coming out soon. And in that we wrote, if there had been more populism and less plutocracy, Donald Trump might be sitting in the white house and the reason for that, I just want to really reiterate this, is that the system is really tilted toward the Republican party. I mean, it’s not because he would have won the popular vote, but because he could have gotten close enough in the popular vote perhaps that he could have won in the electoral college, which is heavily tilted towards the Republicans. The Senate is heavily tilted towards Republicans. Republicans have used their control over gerrymandering and a bunch of States to tilt the house in favor of Republicans. They stack the Supreme court partly because of the other advantages.
The fact that they’ve won the presidency twice without winning the popular vote in the last 30 years. So, the tilt of the system towards the Republican party has given them a bunch of running room. And they’ve gotten more running room despite pursuing an unpopular agenda by using these right wing appeals. But in the end, I think what this shows is that the core agenda is not that popular and, especially in the face of a global pandemic, which is a singular event in many ways, the vulnerability of Trump and the party because of the fact that the agenda they pursued is so at odds with what most Americans want, became manifest. But that may not be true going forward. Because the anti-democratic threat remains really big.
One of the challenges that I have in a work like yours is the prescription seems to be that the Republicans just need to be more like Democrats. They need to shift farther to the left on economic issues and the identity politics is obviously a threat to democracy. Are the Republican, or even libertarian, economic policies, inherently undemocratic? Is there space for those ideas within, democratic discourse within the United States?
So that’s a great question, and I would say, yeah, we think given the levels of inequality in the U.S., the extremely high levels of inequality in the U.S., that a Republican party that wants to be a small D democratic party needs to shift to the left on economic issues from the extremely reactionary positions. I would say there is a lot of room to do that without turning into the democratic party. Center-right parties, historically across the world of advanced democracy, have been more successful than left parties have been.
And that’s certainly true today. But they don’t look like the Republican party. They’re not climate denialists. And when they get into office, they sustain social welfare programs so I wouldn’t expect this hypothetical Republican party to embrace single payer. , but it ought to be able to work with something like the Affordable Care Act. I mean, that came out of the Heritage Foundation, and out of Mitt Romney’s work in Massachusetts.
In a civilized society, if you want everybody to have access to healthcare, which most people think should be the case, then you’re going to need to have a bunch of government involved in that, ‘But we would like to continue to rely on the private sector. And we’d like to use market mechanisms and market incentives wherever possible,’ but that’s going to, you know, that’s going to require you to do a bunch of other things that only government can do and where you have to exercise political authority, and you’ve gotta be willing to spend some tax money.
Now, I think most Democrats, if they got to run things on their own and didn’t have to worry about things like the filibuster or the Senate, they would like something well to the left of the Affordable Care Act. They can’t get that under our system, but the Republican party doesn’t have to go all the way there. It didn’t in the 1950s and 1960s. And it hasn’t always in other countries, there’s a lot of room to run on economics between where the GOP is now and where the Democrats are.
There’s an interesting diagram in your book where you plot the Democratic party and the Republican party against other parties around the world. And the Democrats are actually closer to the conservative party in the United Kingdom than the Republicans are. And there’s a part in David Cameron’s biography where he’s talking to Barack Obama on a plane about politics, and Barack Obama actually says to David Cameron, the former prime minister of, the UK, that if he was in the United States, he’d actually be a Democrat.
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. And I think Paul’s point, you can put it another way, just to say that we’re not arguing that there shouldn’t be vigorous two-party competition. We are arguing that the current constitution of the Republican party poses these two interrelated challenges. One, it’s so committed to a set of unpopular plutocratic economic policies that it has to radicalize voters to get strong support, because these voters can’t be brought in on shared economic grounds.
And by the way, that matters too, in terms of building a multi-racial party. We show that one of the reasons Republicans had trouble maintaining George W. Bush’s strong support among Hispanics is that their economic policies are just not that popular. So, it wasn’t just the stances on immigration, but also that the party was not really delivering on the compassionate, conservative rhetoric that George W. Bush used to attract Hispanics. And the other threat is to democracy and these are linked, but somewhat distinct because even if you’re not radicalizing the voters, if you want to stick to a set of policies, that means that you really aren’t going to be able to hold power unless you rig the system.
That you’re not going to be getting the majority support unless you rig the system, then there are strong incentives to rig the system and that’s what Republicans have been doing. And so we’re fearful both that you could have a kind of right wing authoritarian, populist figure who’s more savvy than Donald Trump. Who will create cultural division and racial division that could lead to violence and even to the toppling of our form of democracy, but we’re also worried that Republicans can embed themselves in power, have a strong Supreme court majority, have persistent Senate majorities, or at least enough people in the Senate to block everything through the filibuster, have this very, very strong position in most state houses in the U.S., despite not actually having that popular of a program, because they’ve basically tilted the playing field.
So we have a, sort of, big fear, which I think a lot of us are aware of after the January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection of, kind of right-wing populists undermining of democracy. But we also think that the entrenchment of minority power that is not responsive to the people, but responsive to a narrow segment of society and, either really extreme folks who have positions that are way, way outside the mainstream on guns, or on what counts as morality, or who have really extreme positions in terms of shoveling money and support to the richest of Americans in an unequal society, that those folks will entrench themselves in power and our system will lose its capacity to be responsive to shifting majority sentiments. So those are, twin fears, but they both kind of come back to what’s happened to the Republican party.
I have a slight confession to make. I grew up in a household that was libertarian and identified as libertarian for years. I even worked briefly for, a state libertarian party at one point. So, I can speak with authority regarding views of the libertarian party. I mean, I’ve grown beyond that, but to me, one of the biggest threats to democracy within that ideology and within the far right today is the sense that government does not work.
Because if you think government does not work. And if democracy depends on a government of the people, then that means that the people cannot run the government. It’s going to fail. It opens up the door for dictatorship in the end, because democracy can’t work, because government doesn’t work. I don’t know. I’m kind of concerned about the direction of the country at this point, at this moment with people storming the capital, because I think that that ideology is starting to seep into the Republican party.
Yeah. There’s a, there’s a lot to unpack there. I mean, I actually would love to have a conversation with you, Justin, sometime about, American Amnesia, because I think it actually, it’s well, it’s now four years old, but it gets out, I think a lot of the questions that you’re interested in about the relationship between capitalism and democracy in the modern world, not just about inequality, which is the focus of the current book, but just a broader set of questions about how you have an effective, successful society in a highly interdependent world.
In which you really need markets to deal with a lot of challenges, but they’re actually highly imperfect vehicles that generate a lot of problems. So, you’ve got to have some kind of balance between government and markets and the argument we make in American Amnesia is that for much of the 20th century, both in the United States and in a lot of other countries, we actually kind of gradually stumbled towards a pretty good balance that was highly imperfect, but that made these societies much, much richer. And much, much better for the least well off in the societies that have been true in prior human history, amazing achievements in like life expectancy and, and so on. It’s a place where, I think our work actually lines up with Case and Deaton’s work in really interesting ways.
And somehow we’ve turned our back on that. And there are a number of things I think that lead to this kind of deep distrust of democracy, that deep disappointment with the work of government, there are a number of things that feed into this one. One is the kind of outrage, machinery that has developed on the right, which we haven’t really talked about, but which we think is. And we think the rise of talk radio and Fox news is a huge, huge part of the story, but the other thing, close to the themes around the idea of the conservative dilemma that we talk about in our book is that the relationship between inequality and democracy goes back to the very beginning of when the idea of democracy was just a glimmer in somebody’s eye.
And there was always this issue for the wealthy that, gee, you know, if everybody can vote, they’re going to expropriate me, maybe they’ll kill me. So political scientists have been talking about this for 50 years. You see this in the origins of democracy, the development of democracy, and also the stabilization of democracy. If you have really high levels of inequality, then the argument, particularly on the right, that says, this is a bad idea to have a system where people get an equal number of votes, because they’re not going to like the current distribution of income.
So, you see these arguments getting more and more credibility on the American right in the last 20 years. Like nobody would have said this stuff in public 20 years ago, but now they do. They say there’s something wrong with giving people an equal say because they’re going to use it to take my property.
Well, I started out by saying that you had some complex ideas and I think, I think we showed that today. Thank you so much for joining me, Jacob and Paul.
Thank you, Justin.
Thank you, Justin. That was great.
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