Monthly Archives: March 2015

The right’s dog-whistle trick: How it exploits racism to rip apart the social safety net

In his newest book, “Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney Lopez argues that politicians on the right have used coded racial appeals to tear at the fabric of the social safety net. Lopez, the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of the Fletcher Foundation’s Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellowship and is a leading thinker on issues of racial justice and the legal system. (He’s also a senior fellow at Demos, where I am a research intern.)

Salon spoke with Lopez about “Dog Whistle Politics,” conservatism and racial politics in the United States. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

I think the best place to start with this book and with the history of dog-whistle politics is Barry Goldwater. That’s the first time you have this melding of the plutocratic agenda with dog-whistle politics. 

I think that’s exactly right. Goldwater shows you both elements. I think people have really only paid attention to one side. People have paid attention to the fact that there is this coded racial appeal and they react by saying that race plays out only at the margins. But when you look at Goldwater and you see that these racial appeals are tied to an attack on liberalism, are tied to an attack on the activist state, then you see that this is not a minor, vestigial effect on campaigns, but  rather it’s central to the ideological project of conservatism. And then you can start to see the power of dog-whistle politics.

Richard Hofstadter’s essay on Goldwater [“Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics”] doesn’t focus as much on the racial aspect, he focuses on the pseudo-conservative nature and ties it into what he calls the “paranoid style” in American politics. How much of a factor is dog-whistle politics and how does it interact with these other parts of conservatism?

When you look at Goldwater you are looking at the inception of coded racial appeals. When you look at Goldwater’s national campaign, which Hofstadter does, the paranoia is focused on communism. His national campaign commercials are pitched toward national security, not race. Nationally, that’s the issue around which he presents himself. It’s the South where he is particularly aggressive in pushing a racial element in his campaign. So I wouldn’t make the statement that Goldwater launches a national racist campaign; that dishonor goes to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. When Nixon talks about “law and order” it’s both code for race and code for the civil disturbances of the antiwar movement, the protest movements. They interact in the sense that these are efforts at faux-populism. These are efforts to explore popular anxiety through appeals that stir fear in order to generate votes for policies that are going to undermine the liberal state. What’s important here is that they are operating in code, but the agenda is, the substance of the proposal is, “Let’s dismantle the New Deal state.” But rather than say, “Let’s dismantle the New Deal state,” they say, “We need to worry about minorities, we need to worry about threats to your freedom. Society is being taken over by these foreign elements.” I think that is how these interact.

Joe McGinniss discusses in “The Selling of the President 1968″ how Nixon’s campaign tailored their ads to the South, but the age of the Internet makes that more difficult. If you try to run a racially coded ad in the South, Northerners are going to notice that. How has that changed dog-whistle politics?

I think it does. It cuts both ways. On the one hand, you can do much more granular targeting of audiences. On the other hand, it’s much easier for others to find that material. The incident with the Obama-phone lady became a national incident, but it was a TV commercial run in just one state. It came to people’s attention: “Hey, look, a Tea Party group is running this as a TV commercial.”

Martin Gilens has an essay [“How the Poor Became Black”] about how media influences racial perceptions, and he talks on the national level about how when CBS reports on the undeserving poor it’s more likely to be a black face and when it’s the working poor or hard times it’s more likely to be a white face. What effect does the national media have on dog-whistle politics? How have they been complicit in this?

The impact is tremendous. Politicians can seed the media with these frames and because these frames have a strong racial logic behind them, they end up being picked up by the media and amplified dramatically. An example would be Ronald Reagan’s warnings about undocumented immigrants and the threat of them pouring across the border. He essentially creates that issue as a sort of a media frame. When he’s first elected people don’t have a sense that this is a major social problem facing the United States, but by [Reagan] constantly talking about it, the media begins to pick up on it and report stories on it and it becomes a national hysteria. I would say he does the same thing with crime. The more he talks about crime, the more it becomes an issue, the more the media find that it’s actually easy to report on crime stories. Reporting on crime stories goes up by 200 or 300 percent while the incidence of crime doesn’t. That generates a tremendous amount of fear around these coded threats that the politicians are using to campaign on.

Thomas Frank has argued that the plutocratic agenda hasn’t melded with race, but rather with social issues. Do you see race in these social issues?

I think Thomas Frank’s analysis is terrific, but I think he’s fundamentally wrong on race. Race is one of the many social issues in which the plutocratic agenda has been enveloped, but it’s more than just one of them — it’s the primary one. This isn’t to downplay the influence of religion or guns or abortion or gay marriage or any of those other red meat issues. But it’s race that provides the most powerful dog-whistle and the paradigm around which these other coded campaigns were based. Frank is wrong because he understands racism as “hate every black person” racism.

He understands it as the commitment to white supremacy. He has this phrase in his book where he says, “America doesn’t have Trent Lott disease” and he’s referring to Trent Lott’s slip in which he extolled the Dixiecrat campaign of 1948. I agree. America doesn’t have Trent Lott disease. You don’t have widespread commitment to continued white supremacy. But that is vastly different from saying America doesn’t have a race problem. Race has evolved dramatically in the past 50 years since the civil rights movement. It evolved dramatically during the course of the civil rights movement. That doesn’t mean it has gone away, but rather that the form it has taken has changed. But its impact, its ability to shape American politics and get many people out to vote in ways that harm themselves and help the very rich, has remained and, in fact, even grown over the last 50 years.

You talk about the connection between social issues and race …

If you think about race and religion, for example, what happens with religion is that as soon as public schools are ordered integrated in the South, many whites flee to white academies that are very often Christian academies, so you have this very tight connection between race and Christian academies as a way to avoid integration. Ronald Reagan knows this and he makes it part of his agenda to reach out to these schools and tells them that they will get his support and receive state funding. He is going to support them maintaining these segregated spaces; I think it’s a very close connection. I don’t want to overstate it and say that race underlies everything. The force of these social issues are partially autonomous from race. But there are also very strong overlaps. Gun rights and race also have strong overlaps.

What about the George W. Bush administration? Bush is known for spending a lot on Africa and HIV/AIDS as well as working for comprehensive immigration reform. Did he rely on dog-whistle cues?

Bush is someone who in some ways appreciated that conservatism needed to moderate, that it was becoming too extreme. You see that in the slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” as well as in what he tried to do around education, and you see it in his move away from the egregious race-baiting of his father in the Willie Horton ad. Coming out of Texas and realizing the increasing political power of blacks and Latinos, Bush was initially much more careful not to engage in that sort of really aggressive race-baiting. That shifted after 9/11. It shifted first around Muslims. What you see is the Bush administration now casting itself in a role as the “defender of the homeland,” which requires an enemy, and it’s not enough that the enemy remain external, that enemy has to be internal as well.

The Bush administration begins to cast itself as involved in  a “clash of civilizations” in which there are internal enemies as well and we need to show that there are these terrorist sleeper cells, and how do we do that? We increase hysteria, we increase prosecutions and we establish these security and secrecy protocols so we can’t actually tell you about the people that we are prosecuting. But we assure you that they are incredibly dangerous. All of the rhetoric then feeds into and adds a tremendous amount of political legitimacy to the latent hysteria in the U.S. about non-whites residents of the U.S. who are perceived as irredeemably foreign, as permanently foreign, and as threatening. That really accelerates around Muslims and it very easily adds fuel to social hysteria around Latinos — and Ronald Reagan had done his part to create that fear, so it was already simmering. But now you add the narrative of “We are a nation embattled” and the rhetoric of the homeland, which has a racial cast to it.

Almost immediately, politicians begin to say that the threat is our southern border, and when we try to stop “illegal aliens,” we are trying to stop terrorism. So the Bush administration ends up being a time of intense racial hysteria, now not so much about African-Americans, although that continues, but about these foreign but internal threats from brown foreigners, be they Muslim or Latino. That’s how race ends up working over the course of the Bush administration.

The Tea Party shares a lot with the Barry Goldwater style of conservatism, except now the racism has expanded to include Hispanics and Muslims.

With the Tea Party there is both a racial hysteria that is occurring on a national level and at a more regional level. On a national level, you have organizations like Fox News, which understand perfectly well that they can energize and mobilize a large portion of the white population by constantly hammering away at racial issues. That’s exactly what it does with Obama, with the notion that he is foreign, with the notion that he is Muslim, with Sarah Palin’s notion that he is “palling around with terrorists.” She makes that comment with respect to a white activist [Bill Ayers], but with respect to the time, terrorist codes as “Muslim.” On a national level, a lot of energy is being expended by Tea Party mobilizers to motivate people in terms of race.

It’s worth remembering that Roger Ailes was a person who was key in developing Nixon’s strategy and now he is head of Fox News, so it’s not entirely surprising.

Absolutely. There is a direct connection there.

The Tea Party seems to have a rift with the more “moderate” national party.

There is an autonomy as to which politicians dog-whistle and how they see their electoral prospects. So states like Arizona or Georgia, these are states in which politicians can be incredibly aggressive in the ways that they dog-whistle around Latinos and the slurs they use when they talk about illegal immigrants and the sort of harsh and punitive laws they pass. That will play well in terms of their local populations and will get them elected and reelected. Until it doesn’t. The national party looks around and sees that the political power of Latinos is increasing and we need to scale it back. But in some sense it’s not up to the national party to scale it back now. You do get these autonomous elements and politicians have their own political calculus and it might be such that it allows them to engage in much more egregious race-baiting than the national conservative movement might deem most effective. You have this process in which faux populism can escape the control of national central organizers.

The toughest part is identifying the solution. As soon as you start talking about the Tea Party and race they turn around and say, “You are the racist for saying that we are the racists.” Can you elaborate on some solutions?

The solution is clear, although it’s not short-term. We have changed the way race operates. The rhetoric of race has changed dramatically in a way that racial justice projects have lost, but also, and more fundamentally, liberalism has lost. It’s lost because race has shifted to a coded and expressed register and on both registers the language of race is controlled by conservatives. So on the coded register, you have this constant drumbeat of insinuations that taint liberalism as a giveaway to minorities through language like “welfare” or “amnesty” or “causing terrorism.” And you don’t see liberals using a coded racial language to rebut that. Then on the express level, conservatives have made racism mean only an open reference to race itself. What that means is that whenever liberals or racial progressives say, “Hey, you know racism remains a big problem in our society,” something as innocuous as that, they immediately get slammed for playing the race card and conservatives run around saying, “Hey, we’re a post-racial society, but you just introduced race into the conversation.”

An interesting example was when Obama made the brief remark that he doesn’t look like all the other presidents on the dollar bills. He doesn’t! We ought to be able to say that, and we ought to be able to say that there has been a practice of scaring people around race. The minute he said that, he was the racist, he was the one injecting race into the conversation and poisoning the post-racial harmony that otherwise defines the U.S. as far as conservatives were concerned. We cannot restore a robust commitment to progressive government that helps everybody until we can challenge that rhetoric. And we can’t challenge that rhetoric until we once again engage with the power of race in our society. And that is a medium-term project. But it requires the commitment of lots of different actors, from politicians themselves, from foundations, from unions and from the media to really reengage with the role that race is playing and to be much more sophisticated in our understanding of how racism works and the many different forms of racisms. We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood. Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms. And until we recognize that and start talking about it we’re going to see that some of those forms of racisms are easily used to manipulate broad swaths of the American electorate.

Of course, during the Jim Crow South, a lot of the efforts used to disenfranchise black people ended up disenfranchising poor whites. You argue that the plutocratic agenda is being wielded to harm poor whites.

I would say this point is so central that I would put the point even more strongly. Dog-whistle politics is not fundamentally about race. It’s fundamentally about attacking liberal government, attacking New Deal government, which is good for the country as a whole, but bad in the perception of some of the very rich. This is fundamentally about power, it’s fundamentally about how we are going to organize a society for everybody. The core point here is that race is being used to wreck the middle class.

I want to emphasize that, because when people hear race, they think about poor minorities. And then the next thing they think is, “I don’t really get it, that’s not me, I’m pretty different, I’m going to tune out.” But the central point here is that race is being used to wreck the middle class. This has been the way conservatives have found that they can attack commitments to education, commitments to a social safety net, commitments to infrastructure, commitments to job programs, commitments to progressive taxation that taxes the most wealthy to help the rest of society. This is about all of us, and if we continue to think, “race is the way they go after poor minorities, and yeah, that’s bad, and I’ll get to that next, but I don’t have a job and my unemployment insurance has just been cut and my kids don’t have good public schools to go to and I can’t afford private schools,” we’ve missed the point, and we’ve missed the way that race has been used to destroy a society that promotes the middle class.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

The true cost of Citizens United: The Roberts Court’s darkest hour revisited

Co-written with Liz Kennedy. 

It’s been five years since the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, which allowed unlimited corporate money into the political system and increased the domination of democracy by the wealthy elite. Money has indeed overwhelmed the system since 2008. This rise of big money in politics has endangered democracy and emboldened those who want to put democracy up for sale to aggressively attack the modest campaign spending regulations that still remain.

A recent Demos report explores how, since Citizens United, the following have occurred:

  • In the 2012 election .01 percent of all Americans contributed more than 28 percent of all individual contributions.
  • In the 2012 election, Sheldon Adelson spent an estimated $150 million, $98 million through dark money channels. In 1980, by contrast, the largest donor gave $1.72 million (inflation-adjusted).
  • A 2013 study finds, “millionaires receive about twice as much representation when they comprise just 5 percent of the district’s population than the poorest wealth group does when it makes up 50 percent of the district.”
  • Another 2013 study finds that the richest 1 percent of Americans are “extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs.”

Americans are increasingly skeptical of claims that democracy by the wealthy is compatible with their interests. In a recent study commissioned by CNBC and Burson-Marsteller, 73 percent of American consumers believe that the government is more on the side of corporations than average citizens. Research by Pew suggests that trust in government has reached an almost record low, and the most recent ANES data find that 63.4 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 agree (24.5 percent “strongly agree”) that public officials don’t care what people think.

As Jedediah Purdy notes in Dissent“Unlike early Americans, who were obsessed with the decline and fall of republics, the justices seem to suppose that, once established, democracy cannot fail. This view flies in the face of history. It also suggests why the justices seem so complacent about the danger that their own rulings will erode democracy.” Purdy is correct, and the evidence is strong the dominance of money in politics has already overpowered the voices of middle-class Americans and Americans of color. As the evidence above suggests, Americans have very little voice in democracy, and increasingly feel that their government is not responsive. Low voting rates, particularly among the poor (far below average among OECD countries), are a symptom of our crisis of democracy. A recent poll finds that 54 percent of Americans who don’t vote say they don’t pay attention to politics because the political system is too corrupt.

But this is not the end of the story. Although a small group of unelected justices has attempted at every turn to weaken democracy — since 2006 the Roberts Court has struck down every money-in-politics law it has considered and removed critical protections for voting when it gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act —  it’s up to Americans to take it back.

Here are some proposals:

Public Financing

To counter the influence of big money in politics we need structures that encourage small donors to get involved. Such a system would mean that politicians would be dependent on, and thus responsive to, their constituents, not just rich donors. Connecticut is a great example of public financing. In Connecticut, 90 percent of legislative candidates and both gubernatorial candidates participated in that state’s clean elections program. Thesecandidates report being able to spend more time with their constituents. Once candidates were no longer exclusively dependent on wealthy donors and businesses, the influence of lobbyists decreased, which has been cited as an important step in guaranteeing paid sick leave to workers and raising the minimum wage.


In Citizens United, the justices upheld the constitutionality of disclosure, and in fact assumed that all the new money allowed into our politics would be transparent to voters,writing, “prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.” But an effective disclosure system does not yet exist, and our political system is awash with undisclosed political contributions (see chart). Disclosure of political spending serves voters’ interests in knowing who is funding a political message and about a candidate’s financial allegiances; protects against corrupt political deal-making; and prevents circumvention of campaign finance protections such as contribution limits by allowing monitoring. In the current system, corporations and unionsface different disclosure regimes, with unions required to disclose their political spending. The FEC should update their rules, which a federal judge found created an “easily exploited loophole.”

Reclaim the Constitution

It is key that the Court recognize our Constitution’s core values of equal voice and democratic accountability, and adopt a more common sense standard for corruption (one supported by a majority of Americans). Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said, “if there is one decision I would overrule, it is Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.” Leading First Amendment scholar and former University of Chicago Law School dean Geoffrey Stone writes “that these five justices persist in invalidating these regulations under a perverse and unwarranted interpretation of the First Amendment is, to be blunt, a travesty. These decisions will be come to be counted as among the worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court.” That’s quite a feat for our Supreme Court, given its ugly history.

Getting money out of politics should not be a partisan issue – a recent survey of likely voters finds that likely voters (including Republicans) are more apt to support than oppose public matching funds for small donations and public funding for elections. Majorities from both parties support disclosing corporate spending (see chart) and more than a million people have signed a petition supporting a proposed SEC rule to require publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending.

The problem, of course, is that the same people who benefit from money in politics are pulling the strings right now. The American citizens are united in opposing money in politics. Now, we need a mass movement from ordinary Americans to take back our democracy.

Originally published on Salon.

Why the GOP’s war on Social Security hurts basically everyone but rich white guys

Polls consistently suggest that the No. 1 women’s issue is the economy.

Female voters are split, particularly by marriage between the Democrats and Republicans. Married women slightly prefer Republicans, while single women overwhelmingly prefer Democrats. The reason is simple: In an economic system that overwhelmingly favors the married, single women tend to live more precariously and rely on programs that Republicans want to eviscerate. And there’s another factor that will only increase such discrepancies: Conservatives are increasingly pushing to cut programs for seniors. In our economy, where care-taking responsibilities fall overwhelmingly to women, this will mean more women will have to shoulder the burden of healthcare. Austerity will burden women, particularly women of color.

The politics of austerity

Even though the deficit has declined dramatically, and there is very little evidence for a long-term budget crisis, Republicans are still hellbent on shredding the social safety net. As Dylan Scott reports for Talking Points Memo, “Republicans are seizing a once-every-20-years opportunity to force a crisis in the Social Security disability program and use it as leverage to push through reforms, a long game that they have been quietly laying groundwork for since taking control of the House in 2010.” This even though the crisis they worry about is actually entirely mythical. But America is on the road toward a retirement crisis, as a squeezed private pension system and a squeezed public pension system collide.

Long story short: Millions of American are going to retire without adequate savings to survive. This will mean an increasingly despairing elderly population, but another important impact could be a large step back for women in the workplace. This crisis doesn’t show any signs of abating — young people are pushing off saving because they are racked with student debt. A Demos report finds that a student who graduates with $53,000 in debt will expect to have a lifetime wealth loss from that debt of $208,000. These debt burdens primarily affect low-income students and students of color.

The retirement crisis is not inevitable and nor is it the fault of workers. As Dean Baker has noted, most of the gap in public pensions was the result of the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Matt Taibbi points out in Rhode Island, the state government is paying $2.1 billion in fees over 20 to hedge funds, while freezing cost of living adjustments for workers at a cost of $2.3 billion over the same period. Yet hedge funds are a hugely overrated asset class, and the state government would be better off just investing in an index fund (one reason CALPERS recently divested). If retirement security is seen as a three-legged stool of Social Security, employer pensions and private savings, we can see that all the legs are being undermined. Pensions are more and more likely to be defined contribution instead of defined benefit – if workers have them at all. 401k plans extract hundreds of thousands from workers in fees. Private savings are plummeting  as incomes are squeezed. At the same time, Social Security is under assault from increasingly radical conservatives.

The Impact

The decimation of the housing sector and the war on pensions means one thing: a looming retirement crisis. Generations of elderly people will find themselves without private savings and find Social Security and Medicare have been hacked apart by Republicans, bowing to the demands of rich donors (see chart).

This will mean once again elderly poverty will be a pressing concern, even though we have spent decades making progress toward eliminating it. But much this burden will inevitably fall on the children of retirees: mainly women. Last year, the New York Timesreported on a disturbing trend: After decades of increasing, female labor force participation is plummeting (see chart).

Most disturbingly, many of these women were dropping out during prime earning years. One significant reason is to take care of elderly parents. Research by Pew shows that women are far more likely to take a large reduction in hours, take off time, quit a job or turn down a promotion to care for a child or family member (see chart).

large academic literature suggests that women will bear the brunt of the caregiving activities for elderly retirees. Research suggests that, “Daughters are twice as likely as sons to become the primary caregiver.” Richard Johnson and Anthony Lo Sasso find, “time to help parents strongly reduces female labor supply at midlife.” Research alsoconfirms that women do not care for elderly parents because they are already unemployed, but rather, “Thus, the causal relationship between employment and caregiving in late midlife is largely unidirectional, with women reducing hours to meet caregiving demands.” In a recent study Yeonjung Lee and Genan Tang find, “Results show that women caregivers for parents and/or grandchildren were less likely to be in the labor force than non-caregivers and that caregiving responsibility was not related to labor force participation for the sample of men.” AARP estimates that a caregiver over 50 will lose $283,716 in wages and benefits for men and $324,044 for women. There are costs for businesses too, an estimated annual loss of $33.6 billion in lost productivity. But the brunt of the burden is borne by the poor, women and people of color. The impact of the retirement crisis could set back the progress of women in the labor force by decades.

The Solution

One solution to the retirement crisis is the financial sector, which benefits the rich while undermining the wealth of the poor. Rep. Chris Van Hollen has laid out the best way to do that; his recent proposal is centered around a financial transaction tax projected to raise $1.2 trillion in revenues. The tax wouldn’t just raise revenues; there is strong evidence it could reduce market volatility and rent-seeking (rampant on Wall Street). The money raised from the tax should be used to bolster the social safety net slowly being shredded by the right. It should also be used for public investment in infrastructure.

A more structural issue is the nature of uncompensated work in a capitalistic society. While it is unlikely that we can decimate patriarchy in the near future, one solution could be socialize it. By turning over caregiving, early childhood education and other labor that is currently performed by women (without pay) to the public sector, women will be free to pursue their own interests. Labor that was once uncompensated will now be performed for decent wages creating millions of public sector jobs (massive cuts to public sector jobs have also taken a toll on female employment). Further, we should ensure that both women and men have access to parental leave, sick leave and an adequate pension. These reforms will be costly, but the $1.2 trillion that a financial transaction tax would raise could easily cover these costs. Our tepid commitment to gender equity will be rendered useless if continued austerity falls entirely on the shoulders of working women.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Why is the financial industry so afraid of Joseph Stiglitz?

Co-written with Palladino.

If the government were creating a new panel to advise on financial regulation, it would make sense to include a Nobel Laureate considered one of the most influential living economists. Yet Joseph Stiglitz has been barred from such a panel, telling Bloomberg he was out because “they may not have felt comfortable with somebody who was not in one way or another owned by the industry.”

The fight to keep Stiglitz off the panel is indicative of a much deeper problem — how the financial industry manipulates the regulatory system. The financial industry does not want Stiglitz on the panel for a simple reason: he has committed the crime of advocating for a modest financial transaction tax. Stiglitz argues that while financial markets normally serve the important function of capital intermediation, some forms of trading, like high-frequency trading, make markets less stable and amount to making money by moving money around. To reduce the incentives for such trading while raising revenue, he has put forward the possibility of a tax on some forms of short-term trading. Such a proposal has gained traction within academia and is already being implemented in Europe. (And it actually used to exist in various forms in the United States.)

Instead of preeminent financial reform experts like Stiglitz, many key regulatory and advisory positions are taken by those who loosen the leash on the financial industry. A perfect example is the recent nomination of Antonio Weiss to be the treasury undersecretary for domestic finance. Weiss has merger and acquisition experience, but as Simon Johnson notes, no domestic regulatory experience — illustrating in dramatic terms the revolving door between Wall Street and government. Research by Sophie Shive and Margaret Forster finds that this practice is pervasive and increasing. They write that, “the number of ex-regulators employed at financial firms increases by more than 55 percent” from 2001 to 2013. A 2010 CBS analysis finds more than four dozen former Goldman Sachs employees had high-level positions in government. This revolving door is part of what led us to the last financial crisis.

The influence of finance over policy goes deeper than simply revolving-door politics. Nicholas Carnes tells Salon that, “when members with finance backgrounds vote on roll calls, they seem to vote against labor more often than other members.” He finds that for every 100 bills related to labor issues, members of Congress who used to work in finance vote against workers on 3.5 more bills than their colleagues (a statistically significant difference). The rise of finance over politics has had important political consequences: Christopher Witko writes, “financial deregulation was one policy translating the political power of these actors into economic outcomes.” This political power was facilitated by the rise of money in politics, although research by Nomi Prins suggests that cozy relationships between powerful financiers and politicians have existed for decades.

A perfect example of this influence is the recent CRominbus bill (so named because it was both a continuing resolution and omnibus spending bill, making it a massive and high-stakes piece of legislation), which contained extensive deregulation measures. The original version of one of the bill’s key provisions was actually written by the finance industry. (Seventy-five of its 85 lines came from a Citibank proposal.) Lo and behold: The average member voting in favor of the bill received $322,00 from the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) industries, while the average member voting against the bill received only $162,000 from those industries. FIRE companies have dramatically increased their spending on lobbying in recent years, from $609,523,625 inflation-adjusted in the 2000 cycle to $996,406,725 in the 2012 cycle. Even IMF researcherslinked lobbying to the rise of subprime mortgages and the opaque securitization schemes that left the financial crisis on a precipice. These attacks haven’t abated: Last week a new bill was introduced to further water down Dodd-Frank and other key financial regulations.

Domestic financial regulators need to include advocates for financial sector regulation like Professor Stiglitz. There is some bright news, like the recent appointment of a fomer community banker to the Federal Reserve. But this is only a first step: Congress should listen to Stiglitz and pass some form of a financial transactions tax. A pilot project could take place in New York by simply lifting the 100% reimbursement rate on a tax already on the books. In Congress, Representatives Harkin and DeFazio have already proposed a bill that would have generated $350 billion between January 2013 and 2021. But changes to the industry won’t happen until the government pursues stricter lobbying regulations and appoints strong financial sector regulators.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Three secrets to revitalizing liberal America

2014 was not a good year for the left. Republicans now have a stranglehold on the House, where they control the most seats they’ve had since 1948. That lead will likely last fordecades. Democrats didn’t just lose the Senate, they have significantly diminished their chance of regaining it in 2016. Republicans control 31 governorships, as well as 68 of 98 legislative chambers. And of, course, the Democratic party has shown itself to be only nominally liberal, with the current frontrunner for 2016 raising money from Wall Street financiers. The left then has two problems: how to get Democrats winning and how to get Democrats to avoid becoming a party permanently in the callous hands of capital.

Currently, much of the hope for a more liberal Democratic party rests on the shoulders of Elizabeth Warren, who is being drafted to run against Hillary Clinton. While Warren is formidable, it was only six years ago that the left laid its hopes for victory on a single individual and found itself sorely disappointed. The left must remember that leaders do not make movements; rather, movements make leaders. Instead of vacillating from one hero to another, the left must create a formidable power base from which to both defeat Republicans and shift Democrats to the left. This will require a three-pronged approach: mass mobilization of the non-voting population, a stable of progressive leaders and a reduction in the influence of money in politics.

1. Mass Mobilization

There is now a definitive literature that establishes the following facts: First, turnout in the United States is deeply skewed by income. Second, this skew leads politicians to prioritize the preferences of the rich voters of poor non-voters. Third, reducing this income skew would lead to policies that benefit the poor. We can see this within the states, where two studies find states with lower turnout inequality have lower income inequality. States with lower turnout inequality have higher minimum wages, more generous child healthcare programs, stricter and predatory lending laws and higher welfare benefits. Internationally, higher turnout inequality is correlated with lower redistribution, and the United States has the highest turnout inequality internationally.

A recent study by political scientists John Griffin and Brian Newman helps explain why. The authors examine “wins” and “losses” for various groups, that is, how often their member of Congress voted according to their preference. They find that voters win 53.1% of the time, while non-voters only win 48.8% of the time. That should be worrying for the left, since research suggests that non-voters are much more economically liberal than voters. A 2012 Pew Study finds that non-voters were far more likely to support the Affordable Care Act (49% of likely voters supporting repeal, compared to only 31% of non-voters). Non-voters were far more likely to support Obama (47% of likely voters versus 59% of non-voters) and oppose Romney (47% and 24%). Non-voters are more likely than voters to support policies to strengthen unions and to support a job guarantee.

How do we boost turnout low-income turnout? We know. Same-day registration is provento boost turnout and reduce turnout inequality. Felony disenfranchisement laws primarily affect the poor (and people of color). Our two-step elections system (which requires registration) hurts low-income people who are less likely to be registered. To combat this states should better comply with the National Voter Registration Act, which requires public assistance agencies (including the offices enforcing Obamacare) and DMVs to hand out registration forms. The left must also stop the rise of voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect voters of color and low income voters. In the long run, a mandatory voting law would be ideal.

2.     A Stable of Progress Leaders

Although voting benefits nearly all groups, Blacks do not gain as much from voting, according to a recent study (cited above) by Griffin and Newman. That is because, as Paul Frymer notes, Democrats often have an incentive to try to court white voters or high income votes to ensure re-election (under the assumption that Blacks won’t run for to the Republican Party). The best way to solve this problem is more people of color in office. Research by Eric Juenke and Robert Preuhs finds that at the state level, people of color are better represented by people of color than white Democrats. Griffin and Newman findmuch the same thing at the federal level, with some caveats (in some cases, white Democrats are equally effective). Christian Grose finds that Black dedicate more money to African-American constituents. Descriptive representation also leads to more people of color voting, which further strengthens the left.

Also lacking in office is workers. Nicholas Carnes finds that while more than half of all Americans have working class jobs, over the last century workers have never made up more than 2% of representatives at the Congressional level and they make up little moreof representatives at the state level. This is important because numerous studies show that wealthy congressmembers tend to vote more in favor of  business interests and tax cuts, while workers are much more liberal, as measured by AFL-CIO scores.

The good news is that research suggests that people of color are actually just as likely as white candidates to win: the problem is that they often don’t run. The same is true of workers. Carnes finds that training programs can help prepare workers for a campaign, and workers who completed the New Jersey ““Labor Candidate School,” had a 75% success rate. Party leaders who are crucial to the candidate election process need to cultivate workers, women and people of color to run. Finally, the left needs a stable of wonkish administrators that can offer policy recommendations.

3. Get Money Out of Politics

But candidates don’t run and politicians don’t vote in a vacuum. The last decade has seen an explosion of money in politics and it’s distorting the political process. SuperPACs are flooded the airwaves, corporations are spending nearly unprecedented amounts on lobbying and the system is awash with “dark money” that cannot be traced to a donor. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson spent $91.8 million to influence the 2012 election, more than the combined residents of 12 states. In 1980, the largest contributor, Cecil R. Haden gave only $1.72 million in inflation-adjusted dollars. The richest .01% of the populationaccount for 40% of campaign contributions.

This is worrying, because a vast literature shows that campaign contributions can influence outcomes, that lobbying tilts policy in favor of lobbyists and that individual donors can set the political agenda. The problem is that the rich have very different priorities than the middle class. A pioneering study of the policy preferences of the richfinds that the rich are, “extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs.” Further, numerous studies find that when preferences collide, the rich win out.

Although it seems daunting, there are actually numerous policies that the left could pursue that would halt the rise of money in politics. Lobbying regulations have been shown to increase political equality. Unions, which advocate in the interests of all Americans can provide a bulwark to corporations but political spending from both are treated differently. The scatterplot below shows the five unions included in the analysis are (AFL-CIO, AFSCME, Teamster, UAW and the National Education Association). They also alignwith the middle class.

These disparities can be reconciled through a bill like the DISCLOSE Act or SEC oversight, which would bring corporate political spending out of the dark and into the public spotlight. It’s also important to lay the intellectual and legal groundwork to eventually overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon.

These policies are specifically selected because they have a track-record of success that is empirically proven. They are also policies that can be persuasively presented to voters. Politicians aim to get re-elected and they will do whatever it takes to maintain power. With these policies, politicians will have to win the votes of an increasingly economically liberal electorate. The goal of the left should be to force Democrats to adopt economically liberal policies or fear for their seat.

But a progressive America will require work. While it is easy to crown Obama or Warren savior and wait in anticipation for change, those who do so are waiting for Godot. There have been successes over the last year: the Working Families Party helped re-elect Governor Malloy, a consistent progressive (something possible partially because of public financing. Demos (my organization) has been doggedly ensuring that states comply with Motor Voter and we’ve had victories on Same-Day registration. These wins were difficult, but they compound into more victories down the road. But simply anointing another progressive to lead the movement will only lead to disappointment.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

The great American rip-off: How big-money fuels racial inequality

In the wake of Citizens United, large donors dominate the political landscape, with 84 percent of the money spent in 2014 coming from contributions greater than $200. The big money explosion is complete. In 1980 the largest political donor gave $1.72 million (in 2012 dollars); in 2012, the largest donor gave $56.8 million, or 33 times as much. It’s obvious that this big money bias favors the rich over the poor, but new research suggests it may also hamper racial equity.

As money has come to play a larger role in politics, it has opened up the political system to the abuse of a few of the very wealthiest Americans, an ascendant donor class. However, due to racialized distribution of wealth and income in the United States, this “donor class” is overwhelmingly white (see chart).

This means that campaign contributions primarily come from white donors. An AP investigation of 2012 to  super PACs and presidential campaigns finds that more than 90 percent of those contributions came from white neighborhoods. Demos’ analysis of the top 10 Republican and Democratic donors finds that, “All of these donors appear to be white.”

These biases are important; gaps on issues like the budget deficits, inequality and paid sick leave break down more strongly on race lines than they do along class lines, for example. On other issues, there are salient racial divides, and political scientists find that people of color are better represented when their representative is of the same race (white legislators, even Democrats, are not as responsive). There are therefore substantial differences between white and nonwhite opinions on important issues, and it therefore is worrying that money in politics is so skewed toward white donors.

Campaign contributions matter for access and agenda-shaping. Research shows that campaign contributions from businesses can lead to lower corporate taxes. A study of the telecommunications industry finds that political spending leads to less stringent regulation. Recently, Christopher Witko finds that campaign donors are more likely to get a government contract. In a recent field experiment, donors were more likely to obtain a meeting with a Congress member. Campaign contributions and lobbying, then, not only influence whether a policy is enacted — but whether that policy is even considered.

As Adam Lioz notes in the case studies he discusses in the Demos report, “When elected officials are dependent on corporate donors to fund their campaigns, business interests enjoy disproportionate sway over the policymaking process.” One case study is the private prison industry, which has benefited enormously from the incarceration boom. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of inmates housed in private prisons increased 17-fold (the number held in government prisons doubled). Investigative reporter Lee Fang hasextensively documented how private prisons have taken over immigration detention and lobbied extensively for stricter immigration enforcement. The largest private prisons have spent millions lobbying at the federal and state level, particularly in periods during which immigration laws were under consideration. Lioz also links money in politics to predatory lending, which disproportionately impacted people of color and was left loosely regulated because of powerful monied interests.

As noted above, one way to increase the political system’s responsiveness to people of color is to get them elected into office — but money in politics hampers progress here. A 2006 study of state legislative races finds that candidates of color raise far less money than white candidates, and the problem is worse in the South, where most blacks live. This hampers turnout: Political scientists Thomas Holbrook and Aaron C. find that in mayoral elections, “the effect of the total amount of campaign spending on turnout is notable.”

Without significant reform, the rich will gain a stranglehold on our political system. Recent developments, however, suggest that America is going in the opposition direction — from adopting proposals straight from Citigroup lobbyists to the attempt to increase the cap on donations to political parties 10 times its current limit. Over the long term, Citizens United and McCutcheon need to be overturned, but with the current composition of the court this is unlikely. There are still reforms that can be made. Congress should pass the Disclose Act to stop the flood of dark money. Lobbying regulations have been shown to increase political equality. Public financing increases donor diversity and reduces the time candidates have to spend with big money donors. National parties should do more to recruit candidates of color and working-class candidates. Same-day registration would increase turnout among the poor and people of color, which research shows would combat the big money bias in our political system. The tough part about getting these reforms passed: They have to be passed by politicians who are already bought and paid for.

That doesn’t mean there is no hope. Evidence suggests that states with lower gaps in voter turnout have higher minimum wages, lower inequality and stricter lending laws. In Connecticut, the passage of public financing allowed Dannel Malloy to make paid sick days a core part of his campaign. Lindsay Farrell of Connecticut Working Families’ saidthat public financing “allowed him to be competitive in a race at that level without compromising on an issue like paid sick days.” In Minnesota, a grass-roots organizing campaign led by TakeAction Minnesota stopped an ALEC-backed photo ID law. Someday, there may well be a politician who, like FDR, says to monied interests, “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

This piece originally appeared on Salon.