The education myth

This piece was co-written with Marshall Steinbaum, a research economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Almost everyone agrees that education, innovation and human capital are critical to economic growth and security. And anyone who can’t find a job or is stuck with a low-paying job is told to acquire the skills necessary to succeed in today’s economy.

Unfortunately, the results of believing in that myth have been catastrophic. Earnings have stagnated or declined for everyone except the very top earners, even for those who have educational qualifications, and jobs that didn’t previously require credentials now do. College-educated workers are increasingly forced to take jobs in low-paying industries.

The skills gap is not why workers aren’t prospering. If it were, those with higher skills should be doing better, not worse. Instead, employees are victimized first by policy failure — since the economy is not operating at full employment, those who depend on their labor for living may not find work — and second by the deluded guidance of experts who point to education as a panacea for all their problems.

As the chart below illustrates, the most-educated workers have seen their wages stagnate for the past seven years, and everyone else has suffered outright declines. A new study by sociologists Richard Breen and Inkwan Chung found that most of the increase in inequality over the last three decades occurred within different educational attainment groups rather than between them (i.e. the gap isn’t between high-school and college grads but within different educational categories). Instead, inequality primarily derives from the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent taking an increasingly large share of the national income. Breen and Chung conclude that equalizing educational attainment would do little to ameliorate such inequality.

wage change

Education hasn’t protected workers from falling wages. (Source: The Economic Policy Institute)

The education myth has also harmed the U.S. economy. For many young people, the harms are embodied in the increase in student debt and related pathologies such as job lock (being forced to stick with a bad job to make student loan payments) and low household formation (indebted graduates being forced to living with their parents). It also enables economic leeches such as for-profit higher education providers, senior universityadministrators and the student loan industry to prosper off young people.

Anxiety over bad job prospects reached its height during the recent recession and its immediate aftermath. At the same time, average student debt and payment levels as well as enrollment in for-profit colleges — whose students often depend on loans to finance their educations — increased starkly. Implicit federal subsidies to for-profit schools have also expanded dramatically, even as state-level appropriations to public institutions of higher education continue to be slashed. This was done on the premise that students will finance their educations when the benefits of doing so are obvious and the means exists in the form of loans.

The results are beginning to show in a wave of delinquencies, including the high-profile case of Corinthian Colleges,which went belly up in the face of state and federal regulatory scrutiny about its marketing promises and its graduates’ employment prospects. And employment and earnings outcomes for recent labor market entrantscontinue to lag their predecessors’. Those who continue to pay off debt accrued in pursuit of degrees they did or, worse, didn’t complete are laboring under the burden of a mistaken ideology. At the very best, professional credentials protect workers from the fate befalling those without — a very expensive rat race. But educational attainment alone doesn’t improve aggregate employment outcomes, nor do more degrees benefit the economy when it is operating below capacity.

The education myth dubiously posits that increasing access to higher education can increase upward mobility and reduce racial inequality. But in a recent study, economists William R. Emmons and Bryan J. Noeth found that the effects of higher education are not the same across racial and ethnic groups. As shown in the chart below, the median net worth of a non-Hispanic white family without a college degree is higher than the median net worth of a black or Hispanic family with a college degree.

There are deep racial gaps in employment rates, even among college graduates. Cherrie Bucknor, a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, reports (PDF) that wages for black men have fallen since the late 1970s, including for those who followed the education myth and obtained a college degree. In fact, according to a recent analysis by Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, “increasing graduation rates would reduce the wealth disparity between black and white people by only 1 percent and between Latinos and whites by 3 percent.”

college graduates

Black and Hispanic workers with college degrees do worse than whites without one. (Source: William Emmons and Bryan Noeth, 2015)

While the benefits of college rarely accrue to black people and Latinos, the costs do. As shown in the chart below, black and Latino students are far more likely to borrow for a bachelor’s degree at public and private colleges and black students borrow nearly $4,000 more for their degrees. And such borrowing doesn’t guarantee a degree. “At all schools, nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) of black borrowers drop out of college, compared [with] 29 percent of white borrowers,” according to Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos.

public private

Black and low-income students borrow more for a bachelor’s degree. (Source: Mark Huelsman, Demos, 2015)

It is clear that more education doesn’t necessarily lead to economic security, but policymakers continue to tout higher education as a solution to the skills gap instead of addressing the economic malaise that prevents workers from putting their skills to productive use. In the 1998 film “Primary Colors,” presidential candidate Jack Stanton, played by actor John Travolta, tells laid-off New Hampshire factory workers to learn how to use “the muscle between your ears” to compete with foreign labor. Politicians, including Presidents Bill Clinton (after whom Stanton was modeled) and Barack Obama, have essentially made the same point in recent years.

Sadly, the ranks of the deluded include economists who continue to highlight the long-standing earning gapbetween those with and without college degrees as evidence that having more people earn degrees would close the gap. Many in the financial industry also apparently think that financing student loans is a socially productive use of capital and of their professional talent.

The education myth enjoys wide appeal because it follows a convenient pattern. It blames the victims of economic misfortune for being underskilled and offers them a way out through debt-financed higher education credentials. But the true culprit is an economy that’s not working, largely by the choice of the people who govern it. By conveniently highlighting the supposed individual responsibility of workers, especially the young, the education myth overlooks the responsibility of policymakers and economic experts to do their jobs and make the economy serve the interest of the public.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

The more unequal the country, the more the rich rule

In recent years, several academic researchers have argued that rising inequality erodes democracy. But the lack of international data has made it difficult to show whether inequality in fact exacerbates the apparent lack of political responsiveness to popular sentiment. Even scholars concerned about economic inequality, such as sociologist Lane Kenworthy, often hesitate to argue that economic inequality might bleed into the political sphere. New cross-national research, however, suggests that higher inequality does indeed limit political representation.

In a 2014 study on political representation, political scientists Jan Rosset, Nathalie Giger and Julian Bernauer concluded, “In economically more unequal societies, the party system represents the preferences of relatively poor citizens worse than in more equal societies.” Similarly, political scientists Michael Donnelly and Zoe Lefkofridifound in a working paper that in Europe, “Changes in overall attitudes toward redistribution have very little effect on redistributive policies. Changes in socio-cultural policies are driven largely by change in the attitudes of the affluent, and only weakly (if at all) by the middle class or poor.” They find that when the people get what they want, it’s typically because their views correspond with the affluent, rather than policymakers directly responding to their concerns.

In another study of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, researcher Pablo Torija Jimenez looked at data in 24 countries over 30 years. He examined how different governmental structures influence happiness across income groups and found that today “politicians in OECD countries maximize the happiness of the economic elite.” However, it was not always that way: In the past, left parties represented the poor, the center and the middle class. Now all the parties benefit the richest 1 percent of earners, Jimenez reports.

In a recent working paper, political scientist Larry Bartels finds the effect of politicians’ bias toward the rich has reduced real social spending per capita by 28 percent on average. Studying 23 OECD countries, Bartels finds that the rich are more likely to oppose spending increases, support budget cuts and reject promoting the welfare state — the idea that the government should ensure a decent standard of living.


The same tendencies occur at the state level. Patrick Flavin, a political scientist at Baylor University, examinedpolitical responsiveness in the U.S. at the state level. He found that inequality in a state strongly correlates with political representation: More unequal states tend to be less representative.

“The effect of income inequality is stronger than just about any other state contextual factor that I’ve looked at,” Flavin told me in a recent interview. “For example, it has a stronger predictive effect on the equality of political representation than the partisan composition of the state legislature/governor’s mansion, the median income of a state, or a state’s population.” Similarly, Elizabeth Rigby and Gerald Wright found that in more unequal states, Democrats tend to be less responsive to the poor.

Some political scientists have found more mixed results internationally. Political scientists James Adams and Lawrence Ezrow found that European democracies are more responsive to “opinion leaders,” or highly politically engaged citizens, than to class differences. “No evidence that European parties respond disproportionately to affluent or highly educated citizens, independently of their responsiveness to opinion leaders,” Adams and Ezrow wrote in 2009. That is, to the extent that the government is more responsive to the affluent, it is because of influential opinion makers among them. However, in a recent Monkey Cage post, Ezrow notes, “levels of economic inequality condition levels of political inequality.”

What’s the solution to rising inequality of responsiveness? More democracy, for one. In a study published last November, political scientists Yvette Peters and Sander J. Ensink examined political representation and responsiveness in 25 European countries. Using the European Social Survey from 2002 to 2010, they analyzed support for income redistribution policies across various categories.

“Governments tend to follow the preferences of the rich more than those of the poor,” Peters and Ensink write. “Higher levels of participation in elections seem to lead to reduced differential responsiveness, even though the effect of the poor and the rich on spending is not fully equalized.”

As I’ve argued previously, there is good reason to believe that increasing voter turnout among the poor and middle class will shift policy in their favor. For example, in a 2013 study, Loyola University’s Vincent Mahler found that voter turnout and class gaps both affect income redistribution.

Voter turnout, of course, will not entirely solve the problem of differential representation, but it can begin to alleviate it. When turnout is in the low 40s, as it is for many U.S. elections, politicians have no reason to fear losing their seat by only representing the donor class. By contrast, with mass participation, ignoring the desires of the public could cost a representative his seat. Using American National Election Studies data, Syracuse University political scientist Spencer Piston ran a unique analysis for Al Jazeera America. His data show that in terms of median income, the median non-voter is far poorer than the median voter — $32,500 per year compared with $57,500.

“Preferences of those with money are more likely to influence policy than the preferences of those without money, in no small part because the wealthy engage more in the political process,” Piston told me. “They vote more often, they donate more money, and they are in closer contact with public officials.” These data also understate the wealth of the donor class, since they include all donors. But the megadonors are increasingly influential: the richest .01 percent of donors (25,000 people) were responsible for 42 percent of donations in 2012.


So while voting will partially alleviate political inequality, we also need campaign-finance reforms such as public financing and more robust disclosure rules. Lobbying reforms and limits on campaign contributions have a proven track record at the state level.

On the whole, there is a strong evidence to suspect that representative democracy is not compatible with deep economic inequality. The American Founding Fathers, classic progressives such as Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and commentators such as economist Thomas Piketty are right to worry about how inequality undermines democracy. As FDR warned, “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Race and gender matter for representation

Much of the commentary on the policies of the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential contenders ignores how race, class and gender interact with political representation. The reality is that low-income constituents, women and people of color are not getting their fair share from the U.S. government. A new study by University of California researcher Zoltan L. Hajnal, currently under review by co-authors John Griffin, Brian Newman, and David Searle, examines the effects of class, race and gender on representation.

Their findings are stunning: For white people, class works as expected, with richer whites getting better representation than poorer whites. But, for black people, there is no class effect and high-income black households receive slightly less political representation than low-income black families. The authors also found that black women’s voices “are likely to overlooked” in policy decisions more than any other minority group.

For years, studies on representation focused primarily on class, education and political knowledge. In 2004 a task force commissioned by the American Political Science Association’s cautioned that (PDF) the United States’ “ideals of equal citizenship and responsive government may be under growing threat in an era of persistence and rising inequalities.” This prompted academics to dive deeper into the question of how race affects political influence and representation.

In their seminal 2009 book, “Minority Report,” political scientists Brian Newman and John Griffin found that black people and Hispanics had less representation than whites. More recently, legal scholar Nicholas Stephanopoulosanalyzed data from state exit polls and legislative outcomes over three decades and found that women, poor people and minorities had very little representation.

Hajnal and his co-authors use more than 40 years of data on preferences of individual voters for spending in 11 key federal policies, including foreign aid, crime and healthcare, to measure government responsiveness. The authors then examine government spending on those issues to see whether the government enacted the policy preferences of minorities and low-income individuals or not. (The authors treated those whose government spending preferences were enacted as winners and those whose preferences were ignored as policy losers.)

All groups enjoyed gains ranging from 30 to 40 percent based on spending preferences vis-à-vis spending outcomes. But the authors found a significant gap in representation across racial groups: Black people were policy winners 31.9 percent of the time, compared with 37.6 percent for white people. Asians enjoyed more representation than blacks and whites, Hispanics slightly less so. (The General Social Survey on Hispanics and Asian Americans is limited to a period of 10 years and thus not entirely comparable.) As the table below illustrates, there’s a 5.7 percentage point difference between blacks and whites, a 1.5-point difference between high-and low-income earners and 4.1 percentage difference based on educational status.

change in probablity of policy winner

The researchers also found a modest gap in representation based on class. (Unlike some other research, they don’t find a gender gap.) The chart below shows the percentage point differences in being a policy winner based on racial differences and levels of income. Put simply, it’s better to be poor and white than rich and black in the United States.

being a policy winner

The authors attribute the disparity in political representation and influence partly to the fact that white people and the wealthy favor the Republican Party, while black people and low-income voters prefer Democrats. All other things equal, Hajnal and his co-authors argue that Republicans are 6.3 percent more likely to win than Democrats. But this doesn’t fully explain the representation gap. Others have offered group size, African-Americans’ spending habits and their preference for the minority position, which has lower levels of support, to explain this gap. Yet none of this can explain the lack of their representation in U.S. government.

“Other racial and ethnic minorities (namely Asians), the poor, the young, the unemployed, Jews, and Catholics all get roughly equal influence or in some cases more influence than their numbers would suggest,” the researcherswrote in one of the dispiriting conclusions from the study. “Only Black voices are differentially ignored.” Unsurprisingly, they also noted that the richest one percent of Americans shape public policy. Despite black people’s near-total lack of representation, the winning rate differences are narrowed slightly more on welfare, healthcare and crime, areas with high levels of salience. This suggests that African-Americans have stronger (though not equal) rates of representation in areas most important to them.

There is persuasive evidence that the U.S. political system is not living up to our democratic ideals.

On many key policy issues there are deep divides between whites and people of color (in some cases even larger than the gaps between high and low-income people). For instance, while 53 percent of whites say the government should pursue policies to reduce the wealth gap, 67 percent of people of color agree.

reducing wealth gap

Similarly, when asked whether the government should spend money to create jobs or reduce the deficit, 50 percent of whites say reduce the deficit (compared with 42 percent for job creation); while 65 percent of people of color say spend money to create jobs (with 29 percent favoring deficit reduction).

creating jobs

Hajnal and his co-authors found that economic growth boosts political representation for everyone, with the strongest effect for African-Americans. However, this too doesn’t quite explain the evident racial bias aimed at reducing black people’s political participation. Moreover, campaign donors are overwhelmingly white and there are few successful politicians of color (particularly women of color), which exacerbates the unequal representation.

While this is the first study of its kind, I hope it inspires more research on the intersectionality of race, gender and income levels in representation. Other research suggests that voter turnout gaps between the healthy and unhealthy also bias policies.

In sum, there is persuasive evidence that the U.S. political system is not living up to our democratic ideals. We need reforms to ensure equal political representation for all Americans. Among other things, a reform agenda should include automatic voter registration and non-partisan get-out-the-vote campaigns to boost turnout among non-voting populations. We must also end the practice of disenfranchising felons. Finally, to fight the influence of money in politics, we need robust public financing.

Political scientists have long understood that the American democracy had an upper-class accent — now we know it’s overwhelmingly white as well.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

How the rich control policymaking

The United States of America is a democratic country. Over the past few decades, however, important questions about policy and budgets have been decided overwhelmingly against the interests and preferences of the middle and working classes. When the preferences of the rich and the middle class come into conflict, the rich tend to win.

Matt Grossmann, a political scientist and the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, is working on a project to expand upon the work of Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, whose bombshell paper last year revealed the impact of economic inequality on public opinion in the U.S. As part of his research, Grossmann examined 50 proposals in the Gilens data set on which opinions between the wealthiest Americans and the median voter diverged the most.

“Many of the largest income-based differences in public opinion on policy issues concern core issues affecting inequality like taxes, business regulation and social welfare,” Grossmann explains in an interview. “On these issues, the richest citizens are more opposed to new redistributive policies than the poor and they usually get their way.” The core areas in which the rich have disproportionate influence are stopping liberal economic policies and pushing forward liberal social policies. The chart below, created from his data, shows that there are large divides between the rich and other respondents on policies related to redistribution.


Of the policies listed on the chart, the only one that was passed within four years was the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was opposed by the lowest-income voters and the median voter. On the other hand, the three policies supported by the bottom and middle deciles but opposed by the richest decile — ranging from tax increases to workplace protections — never passed. Across the board, the richest are most skeptical of redistributive policies.

The data also reveal the persistent bias in favor of the status quo in American policymaking. As Grossman notes, “Only 14 of the 50 proposals were adopted, even though the rich were more supportive than the middle class in over half of the proposals.” Over the full data set, Gilens notes that even in cases of when the overwhelming majority of the public supported a policy, the policy change was achieved only 43 percent of the time. Status quo bias overwhelmingly benefits the rich.

The data set also speaks to the agenda-setting power of the rich. Some questions that the middle-class and poor broadly favored are no longer on the agenda. For instance, the policy proposal to “Require employers to give employees a year notice before shutting down their place of work,” raised in 1985, is no longer under consideration, though 72 percent of median-income respondents favored it at the time. And although 67 percent of respondents favored “creating a government-owned and -operated oil corporation to keep the private oil companies honest in their pricing and their operations,” this question too has faded from the public dialogue. As Paul Burstein notes, there simply aren’t any public opinion data on many of the issues that Congress decides on.

A comprehensive study by Grossmann finds that public opinion was a significant factor in 25 percent of policy changes since 1945. More influential factors have included interest groups (49 percent) and presidents exercising political capital (60 percent).

Why? First, public opinion is volatile, particularly among low-income people. While the rich are consistently in support and the middle class consistently opposed, the lowest decile fluctuates between support and opposition. As political scientist Chris Tausanovitch notes, “Although the preferences of higher income constituents account for more of the variation in legislator voting behavior, higher income constituents also account for much more of the variation in district preferences.” In other words, because low-income Americans have less clearly defined preferences, their opinions vary less, so politicians may be less likely to respond to them.

Political scientists Joseph Daniel Ura and Christopher Ellis argue that less-educated individuals, who are disproportionately low-income, are less likely to align their preferences about government size with class interest. This suggests that higher income opinion is more clearly defined.

Second, the decline of labor unions makes it difficult for low-income Americans to accurately identify and lobby for policies that are in their interest. In a recent study, political scientists Torben Iversen and David Soskice show that low-income people with little political information and who aren’t union members are more likely to support a right-wing party than those who are members of a union and high political information. Their work lines up with that of Anthony Fowler and Michele Margolis, who find that informing people about Republican and Democratic policies using objective information leads them to shift toward supporting Democrats.

Finally, there are good reasons to believe race, which is intimately tied to class in the U.S., may play a role in representation. James Stimson, a leading scholar of public opinion, argues that race could account for many of the gaps in policy preferences across income groups. A recent study using the Gilens data set suggests that people of color receive far less representation than whites, a view supported by other research. In addition, the fact that high-income people are more likely to vote and contact their representatives also makes it likely they will receive more representation.

There is certainly research that suggests constituents can influence legislation. For example, a recent study by Jeff Smith, a former state senator and now an assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the Milano School of International Affairs, shows that contacts from constituents affect the passage of legislation. But it also shows how the rich exercise influence. While 21 percent of those with an income below $30,000 reported contacting a government official, 49 percent of those earning $150,000 or more reported doing so.

According to a survey designed to examine the political activities of the top 1 percent, 55 percent of the wealthy reported contacting public officials. When the wealthy contact officials, they are more likely to report receiving a response. This could explain why political scientists David E. Broockman and Christopher Skovron find that both liberal and conservative policymakers systematically believe their constituents are more conservative than polls indicate, since the most conservative constituents are most likely to engage with the political system.


In short, policy is biased toward the rich. Diagnosing how this bias occurs is the key to prescribing remedies. It’s clear that lack of effective mobilization — in terms of voting and other political activities — is at the core of disproportionate representation. The overwhelming power of the donor class further hampers equal representation.

There are many possible solutions. Automatic voter registration would reduce barriers to participation in election. This step is being implemented in Oregon, which has already added 10,000 voters since the beginning of the year. Other states are likely to follow. Stronger unions would be able to push more successfully for policies that benefit the working and middle class. Finally, public financing of elections would create a more diverse pool of donors.

All of these policies are favored by majorities of Americans. The problem is that this might not matter.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Racism undermines support for government spending

Racism divides the American political system, strengthening opposition to social programs and reinforcing a plutocratic agenda. This is the lesson to draw from new YouGov data, which reveals that most Americans wrongly believe African-Americans make up a majority of welfare recipients and are net “takers.”

The survey, an Internet-based poll with a sample of 1,000 respondents, was performed between Jan. 23 and 25. I requested that YouGov researchers ask respondents questions about how they perceive government benefits across race and class lines, in order to examine how racial prejudice affects these views.

As political scientist Jason McDaniel and I have shown, racial resentment strongly predicts opposition to government aid to the poor and support for the Tea Party. Extensive political science research shows that racial animus strengthens anti-welfare views and motivates right-wing movements like the Tea Party.

Politicians and journalists fuel these racist narratives. President Ronald Reagan’s famous denunciations of “welfare queens” and a “strapping young buck” buying steak with food stamps offer quintessential examples of the former. As for the latter, political scientist Martin Gilens finds that “network TV news and weekly newsmagazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.” In fact, “the elderly constitute less than 1 percent of the black poor shown in these magazines (compared with 5 percent of the nonblack poor) and the working poor make up only 12 percent of poor blacks (compared with 27 percent of poor non-blacks).”

According to the YouGov survey, 41 percent of all respondents say the government does “a lot” to help black people, but this disguises deep partisan and racial divides. For instance, 48 percent of white respondents say “a lot” compared to 6 percent of black respondents. Similarly, 23 percent of Democrats say “a lot” compared with a whopping 66 percent of Republicans.

On the other hand, only 27 percent of respondents say the government does “a lot” to help white people. Among white respondents, 16 percent said “a lot,” and 30 percent said government does “nothing.” Among black respondents, 68 percent said “a lot and 8 percent said “nothing.” And among Democrats, 43 percent said that the government helps whites “a lot,” compared with 17 percent of Republicans.


When asked what racial group made up the majority of welfare recipients, 26 percent of all respondents correctly said “whites,” 34 percent said blacks, 13 percent said Hispanics and the rest were unsure. Again, however, these divides break down along racial and partisan lines, with 36 percent of white respondents incorrectly saying black people make up the majority of welfare recipients, compared with 32 percent of Hispanic respondents and 23 percent of black respondents. Among Democrats, 25 percent said blacks make up the majority of welfare recipients, compared with 45 percent of Republicans.


These popular notions are at odds with reality. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, more than 40 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients are non-Hispanic whites, while a quarter are African-American. A Center for Budget and Policy Priorities study that examines the full range of government benefits found that “Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 64 percent of the population in 2010 and received 69 percent of the entitlement benefits.” They also found that African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population but receive 14 percent of benefits. These numbers are even more disturbing given that whites make up only 42 percent of the poor while African-Americans make up 22 percent of the poor.

The YouGov survey also had a unique set of questions that examine the “makers and takers” narrative that dominated the 2012 presidential campaign, after Republican candidate Mitt Romney was secretly recorded telling an audience:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.

He was referring specifically to the 47 percent of Americans who supposedly don’t pay taxes, though that statistic is muddled by payroll taxes, state and local taxes and consumption and sin taxes. Republican supporters of Romney doubled-down on these comments by drawing a sharp moral divide between the “makers” and “takers” in U.S. society. However, the comments also serve as a subtle racial provocation to white conservatives, many of whom believe that these “takers” are all people of color. More blatant examples are former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s famous “food stamp president” comment, and former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum’s claim that government spending goes to “blah people.”

These narratives appear to be deeply ingrained among white Americans, particularly among conservatives. In the YouGov survey, respondents were asked to say, “For the following groups of people indicated whether you think they tend to give more to society than they take or take more than they give.” On net, respondents said that working-class people (+62), middle-class people (+54) and women (+46) were givers. In the middle were white people (+18) and men (+13). The groups who were categorized as “takers” included Hispanic people (-4), black people (-25) and upper-class people (-31). Among whites, however there was a massive ideological gap on the question of whether black people were viewed as net contributors or net takers, with liberal whites saying black people were net contributors (+18), while moderate whites (-38) and conservative whites (-62) overwhelmingly said black people are net takers.


The data suggest that the makers and takers narrative likely isn’t about class, but about race. Among Republicans, black people are overwhelmingly considered “takers” (-53), while the working class is overwhelmingly seen as contributors (+56). It’s unlikely, then, that when a GOP politician says “takers” or refers disparagingly to those on welfare, he is trying to conjure up an image of a white construction worker who can’t pay taxes, as opposed to an unemployed black single mother.

The study makes it clear that American politics is still deeply driven by race. As Demos President Heather McGhee and scholar Ian Haney Lopez write, “In the post-war era, racism helped create the white middle class. Since the Reagan era, racism has helped destroy it.” They warn that progressives who worry about the weakness of the safety net often fail to appreciate that “racism has been the plutocrats’ scythe, cutting down social solidarity to harvest obscene wealth and power.” It’s clear that distorted views about who’s really benefiting from government spending remain widespread. For progressives to be successful, they need to fight these racist myths.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Moneyed interests are blocking US action on climate change

Global warming is an increasingly pressing crisis. While the recent international climate accords in Paris are an important step forward, the power of wealthy interests in the United States still hampers progress. In her new book, “Dark Money,” journalist Jane Mayer traces how the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and their right-wing allies have funded an elaborate climate change denial operation that has successfully derailed climate legislation.

The denial apparatus

Donors in the Koch network have good reason to oppose climate change, as their business model relies on the market failing to price carbon correctly, due to government subsidies and inaction. As Mayer notes, “Coal, oil, and gas magnates formed the nucleus of the Koch donor network.” Indeed, Koch Industries is one of the country’s largest producers of toxic waste and greenhouse gas emissions. As journalist Tim Dickinson reports, one of the first wins for the Koch brothers was torpedoing President Bill Clinton’s first-term proposal to create an energy tax, which, one high-profile Koch executive said “may have destroyed our business.”

Though the Koch brothers claim to love markets, their overriding political goal is to prevent the pricing of externalities. Koch Industries, Mayer reports, increased its lobbying more than 20-fold to $20 million between 2004 and 2008, more than any other energy and gas company.

Lee Fang, a journalist at The Intercept, has written about how major donors like the Koch brothers have funneled millions into organizations that deny climate change and actively work to oppose climate legislation. He recently uncovered a massive network of secret political spending aimed at funding climate change denial.

A Drexel University study finds that there is an extensive network of organizations funding climate denial, with 140 primarily conservative foundations making donations totaling $558 million to 91 organizations between 2003 and 2010. They find that 5 percent of those donations, or $26.3 million, came from Koch-affiliated organizations. Big fossil fuel companies have spent millions funding climate denial groups, including money to support Willie Soon, a discredited researcher who inflated his credentials and denied climate change (Soon also received money from the Koch Brothers).

In 2009, the year the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES, also called Waxman-Markey after its Democratic co-authors, Reps. Henry Waxman and Edward Markey) was debated, OpenSecrets reported that whilepro-environmental groups spent $22.4 million on 489 lobbyists in favor of the bill, the oil and gas industry spent a whopping $175 million and hired 820 lobbyists to defeat it.

As University of Massachusetts-Amherst political scientist Brian Schaffner and I have shown, Republican donorsoverwhelmingly oppose action on climate change, while non-donors on the right are more supportive. But the problem is even deeper. As the chart below demonstrates (using data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study), non-donors (of any party) are more supportive of Waxman-Markey than donors, and big donors (those giving more than $1,000) are the least supportive. Among big GOP donors, only 8 percent were supportive of Waxman-Markey. If politicians responded to voters, rather than donors, there would be more support for pro-climate policies.


In their extensive survey of the opinions of wealthy Americans published in 2013, Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright found that climate change ranked dead last among issues threatening the U.S., behind “loss of traditional values,” “trade deficits” and “inflation.” While the wealthy in their study generally favored reducing spending on the environment, the public strongly favored increasing spending. The authors also found that within their sample, the wealthiest respondents were least likely to support regulating the economy. When asked about whether the oil industry needed more regulations, the wealthy were modestly in favor of more regulation (5 points net), while the general public was overwhelmingly favorable of more regulations (50 points net).

Shifting the agenda

One of the most successful campaigns by the big money climate change denialists has been to pressure the GOP into increasingly extreme stances. Mayer writes that, “[President George W.] Bush had vowed during the campaign to act on climate change by limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but once in office [Vice President Dick] Cheney countermanded him.” Instead of reining in greenhouse gas emissions, Cheney pushed for the 2005 energy bill, which included massive subsidies and tax breaks for dirty energy. The Kochs, belying their libertarian views, cashed in huge on the subsidies and lavish government contracts. Bush and Cheney also worked to undermine the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

As recently as 2008, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain accepted the science behind climate change and pushed for action. Now that his close ally Sen. Lindsey Graham has dropped out of the presidential race after receiving negligible support, it is certain that the eventual GOP nominee will be a climate change denier.

One reason for this shift is that the Koch-backed group Americans For Prosperity has encouraged members of Congress to sign a “No Climate Tax Pledge,” committing them to opposing “any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.” In the 111th Congress (2009-2010), 46 percent of House GOP members and 26 percent of GOP Senators had signed the pledge. By the 113th Congress (2013-2014), a whopping 61 percent of House GOP members and 56 percent of GOP Senators had signed it.

But Harvard University political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez have shown that the constituents of these “No Climate Tax” pledge signers aren’t on board with this approach. As they note, 73 percent of the residents of their districts support action to regulate climate change.


GOP legislators who stray from the denialism dogma can find themselves under attack from Koch-backed groups. Consider Graham: When he began working with then-Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman to co-sponsor a Senate version of ACES, the Koch network immediately went into action. American Solutions, a political group formed by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich with ties to the coal industry, supported by key donors in the Koch network, attacked Graham for his support of the “gas tax.” Graham soon backed down.

Beyond politics

The actions of donors like the Koch brothers and their vast network go beyond politics. In 2010, David Koch funded an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution that predicted humans would evolve to adapt to climate change. Mayer reports that the Commonwealth Foundation For Public Policy Alternatives, a Pennsylvania think tank funded by secret money but likely tied to conservative publisher and Koch ally Richard Mellon Scaife, who died in 2014, “waged a war” to get a prominent climate scientist fired “and successfully lobbied Republican allies in the legislature to threaten to withhold Penn State’s funding” until they sanctioned the professor. This is just one example of the Koch brothers’ long-held strategy of taking over universities to win the war of ideas.

The Kochs and other groups have waged an extensive denial war modeled after the tobacco industry’s earlier campaigns against regulation. The aim is to discredit science. As a leaked memo by conservative pollster Frank Luntz advises, “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

The result of the denial war has been that since 1992, gaps on environmental policy between Republicans and Democrats have opened faster than on any other issue. Asked whether they agreed with the statement “There needs to be stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment” in 1992, 93 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans agreed. In 2012, the percentage for Democrats was unchanged, but only 47 percent of Republicans agreed.


Similarly, Gallup data suggest that the share of Americans who accept the science of climate change steadily increased from 48 percent in 1998 up to 61 percent in 2008, but then dramatically fell, reaching a low of 49 percent in 2011, at the height of the denial campaign.

The overwhelming influence of the Koch brothers and their allies has shifted climate change from a bipartisan priority to a political non-starter. However, many elite pundits have still failed to recognize this. A recent piece by New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait entitled “Why Are Republicans the Only Climate-Science-Denying Party in the World?” doesn’t include a single reference to powerful moneyed interests. Instead, Chait has spent more time bashing the Keystone XL pipeline protestors.

Climate justice is an existential problem for the entire human race. But it’s also yet another example of how the will of the American people is being overridden by a small group of powerful interests.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Young whites view race with rose-tinted glasses

This piece was co-written by Jesse Rhodes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. 

The United States Supreme Court’s decision to review the constitutionality of the University of Texas at Austin’s affirmative action program has brought renewed debate about the practice. While social science largely supportsthe proposition that affirmative action is beneficial to African-American and Latino applicants, many Americans feel that policies to remedy racial inequality  or to ensure diversity are unnecessary. In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously put an expiration date on racism, expressing a hope that 25 years from then, affirmative action would no longer be necessary.

What do Americans think? Affirmative action sharply divides Americans, largely along racial lines, even among millennials, the most racially diverse generational cohort. Even among young Democrats, white and nonwhite people have very different attitudes about the fairness and appropriateness of affirmative action policies.

Using data from the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a large-scale national survey, we are able to examine preferences about affirmative action among young people, who are most affected by affirmative action in education. The survey asked respondents, “Affirmative action programs give preference to racial minorities in employment and admissions in order to correct for past discrimination. Do you support or oppose affirmative action?” They were able to choose four options: strongly oppose, somewhat oppose, somewhat support and strongly support.

Across the full sample, affirmative action was quite unpopular, with 62 percent saying they either somewhat or strongly opposed it. Among young people (ages 17 to 34), opposition was somewhat less strong, with 54 percent opposed. Notably, while 17 percent of young people strongly support affirmative action (compared with 14 percent of the general population), 28 percent strongly oppose it (versus 37 percent of general population).

However, given the stakes in the UT-Austin case, the differences among age groups are less interesting than the deep racial divide among millennials. A full 66 percent of white millennials said they oppose affirmative action, including 36 percent who “strongly oppose,” and only 9 percent said they “strongly support” it. Among millennials of color, the reverse was true, with 67 percent supporting affirmative action, 32 percent strongly. Among black millennials, support for affirmative action was overwhelming: 75 percent said they favor affirmative action, with 41 percent saying their support is “strong.” Among Latino and Asian millennials, support was more muted, with 64 percent of Latinos and 56 percent of Asians in support.


Party affiliation may be an important factor here as well, as millennials of color are more likely to support Democrats than are white millennials. However, even among young Democrats, there are wide racial divisions. While a bit more than half of young white Democrats (53 percent) said they support affirmative action, there was supermajority support among young Democrats of color, with 80 percent of young black Democrats, 70 percent of young Latino Democrats and 68 percent of young Asian Democrats supporting the policy.

Overall, 76 percent of young Democrats of color said they support affirmative action, and a mere 9 percent said they strongly oppose it. In contrast, more young white Democrats said they strongly oppose affirmative action (19 percent) than strongly support it (16 percent). Strong support for affirmative action among young white Democrats was only slightly more than one-third of strong support among young black Democrats (45 percent) and less than half of strong support among young Democratic people of color (38 percent). This is consistent with other work suggesting young white people, even Democrats, aren’t particularly liberal on racial issues,  especially regarding policies that are perceived as affecting white interests directly.


One of the most persistent myths about race in America is that the color line will gradually fade out with the oldest generation. Unfortunately, the data suggest this is not true. In fact, research suggests millennials, particularly white ones, tend to view racism with rose-tinted glasses.

To examine broader preferences about government action, we turn to 2012 American National Election Studies data, and similar results emerge. Researchers asked respondents to place themselves on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being “Government should help blacks” and 7 being “Blacks should help themselves.” As the chart shows, there are only small differences across age groups but large differences among racial groups — belying the notion that young white people are more racially progressive than their parents. Young liberal white people are more conservative than black people, by a rather dramatic margin.


These data all suggest that, rather than seeing racism as a persistent problem still in need of remedy, many young white people — including those who identify as Democrats — are inclined to believe America is a colorblind society and that little remains to be done to remedy past racial injustices. As psychologists Sarah Gaither, Leigh S. Wilton and Danielle M. Young note in a recent study, “Both white and black voters perceived the election of [Barack] Obama in 2012 to be a sign of increased racial progress while simultaneously serving as a signal for a reduced need for programs designed to address racial inequalities.”

Given the deep conservatism of the Supreme Court and the reality, demonstrated by political science and journalistic observation, that court decisions are decided by ideology and modestly constrained by public opinion, affirmative action may be in trouble.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

The wealthy are ruining American health care

This piece was co-written with Vijay Das, a healthcare advocate at Public Citizen. 

In a hard-hitting New York Times op-ed on Friday, senior New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel put all of Washington on notice. He is fed up with campaign fundraising. He joins Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., this year and Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., last year in retiring from Congress. They’ve had enough of shaking down America’s superrich.

Corporate lobbyists and wealthy activists dictate much of American politics today. In the 2012 presidential race, 0.01 percent of Americans contributed almost 30 percent of the money spent in that entire election cycle. Corporations spend billions of dollars annually on lobbying. America’s big spenders exert tremendous influence over elected leaders and have dramatically different priorities from everyday citizens’.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the political battle over the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which exemplifies how very wealthy political donors impair access to health care.

The law raised the income threshold for low-income Americans to qualify for Medicaid. Households with income up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible. However, the Supreme Court ruled this provision optional for states. For states that expand Medicaid, the federal government picks up all costs to cover additional Medicaid populations until 2017. States pick up 5 and then 10 percent of the tab thereafter. Twenty states have failed to expand Medicaid, leaving 3.1 million Americans uninsured. With a new executive order in Louisiana, the number will fall to 19 states, and an additional 200,000 Americans will eventually become insured.

Medicaid expansion is vital. If it were expanded in every state, it could have prevented 7,115 to 17,104 unnecessary deaths and 240,700 racked-up catastrophic medical bills each year.

Expansion also saves money. With it, states could spend far less on uncompensated emergency care. If Pennsylvania alone expanded Medicaid coverage, Rand Corp. economist Carter Price found that it could add $3 billion to the state’s GDP and create 35,000 jobs.

Yet expansion is being held up because of politics. New research shows that Charles Koch and David Koch’s advocacy group Americans for Prosperity is having great success blocking state Medicaid expansion. The organization’s 34 state chapters currently spend large sums to build its grass-roots advocacy and place political ads. It’s paying off in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott has all but retreated on his openness to expand Medicaid to cover 567,000 low-income Floridians.

This trend is unfortunate, because there’s fertile ground for Medicaid expansion nationwide. New research suggestsif public health activists could better mobilize, they could pressure lawmakers to expand Medicaid. Citizen advocates can trump the austerity-first agendas of billionaire-financed interest groups. They simply have to organize better.

The priorities of rich donors are out of line with voters. Brian Schaffner’s analysis from the 2014 cooperative congressional election study shows a large gap in opinion about Medicaid expansion between the average GOP supporters and the richest among them. Sixty-two percent of nondonor Republicans surveyed said they would refuse the Medicaid expansion, compared with 77 percent of donors who gave much more than $1,000.

AJAMHeatlhcare1Medicaid expansion aside, the political influence of the extremely rich undercuts American health care.

A study of wealthy Americans by political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright finds that while average Americans favor national health insurance, which would be publicly financed on the basis of one’s ability to pay, only 32 percent of the wealthy surveyed said they support the policy, compared with 61 percent of all Americans. When asked if average Americans were willing to “pay more taxes in order to provide health coverage for everyone,” 41 percent of the rich said yes, compared with 59 percent of the general public.


Donations from the wealthy and corporate contributions for lobbyists have also resulted in attacks on Medicare, the half-century-old national health insurance program for seniors and people with special needs. Raising Medicare’s eligibility age from 65 to 67 is a frequency cited idea among the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, even though it would dramatically curb health access for seniors. It’s not crazy to expect House Speaker Paul Ryan to sneak it into this year’s budget. President Barack Obama even offered it as part of a large budget deal in 2011.

This policy would force people off their health coverage, particularly in states that have not expanded Medicaid. An estimated 435,000 seniors would lose coverage by 2021 if the eligibility age were raised. If the eligibility age had been raised in 2014, seniors would have had to pay $3.7 billion more in out-of-pocket costs that year, preventing many of them from obtaining necessary treatments.

Most troubling is that this proposal would increase overall health care spending. Medicare is much better at controlling costs than private insurance, and it has lower administrative costs. Individuals kicked off Medicare likely would get private coverage, and their health care bills would add to overall U.S. health care spending. Thus any Medicare savings achieved by increasing the eligibility age would be canceled out. The Center for American Progress found that raising Medicare’s eligibility age would cost individuals, businesses and states twice as much as the federal savings suggested by the reform.

Though a large majority of Americans opposes raising the retirement age, it remains a fixture in health and federal budget discussions. Why? Because the policy has a powerful big money constituency in Washington. Most trade associations share the interests of their wealthy members: recklessly shrinking federal spending in the name of balancing the budget and eliminating tax obligations, no matter the consequences to the economy and public health.

Trade associations have outsize lobbying muscle. According to a seven-month analysis in 2014 by the Center for Public Integrity, nearly 85 percent of corporate donations for lobbying flowed to trade associations. For every dollar spent on lobbying on behalf of labor unions or citizen interests, corporations and their associations spend $34. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 consistently represent business.

Lobbying to gut Medicare and Social Security is a long-standing problem. Since 1998, the top three health care industry groups have spent three times as much on lobbying as AARP. The Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are the biggest spenders year after year. Both advocate raising the Medicare eligibility age.

There are ways to improve and save Medicare that align with citizens’ interests. We could lower the Medicare age to boost its solvency and achieve better health outcomes. We could save Medicare billions of dollars by allowing it to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. We don’t have to slash benefits and curb access for our hard-working seniors.

As candidates parade around the nation rattling their cups at $40,000-a-plate fundraising dinners, the health of American democracy worsens. When industry-sponsored evening banquets blanket the first 100 days of the next president, we will all suffer.

Many solutions can address the concentrated role big money plays in our politics. Public funding of campaigns is one way to renew the people’s faith in our elections because it would create a more level playing field, allowing a wider range of candidates to compete. At a minimum, we should empower voters by mandating disclosure of all contributions.

The very rich’s austerity agendas are literally killing people. It’s imperative we take the required steps to restore confidence in our democracy.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Racial attitudes still divide the two major parties

Barack Obama’s presidency has been marked by heated debates about the Republican Party’s racial attitudes. Many liberals have noted the dog whistles —subtle cues that play on stereotypes and may trigger taboo sentiments — employed in Republican attacks on the president. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for instance, famously called Obama a “food stamp president,” former Sen. Rick Santorum accused him of giving welfare to “blah people,” and many conservatives have claimed Obama couldn’t have been born in the United States.

For the most part, the public abhors and condemns such blatant racism. But recent data on public sentiments suggest that many Americans hold beliefs affirming subtler, structural racism and that the popularity of these believes divides sharply along party and political lines.

I began my examination of whether there is a partisan divide on racial issues with the American National Election Studies 2012 survey. The first set of questions I examined measures racial stereotyping, asking respondents whether they believe that black people are “hard-working” or “lazy,” “intelligent” or “unintelligent” and whether they have “too much influence” or “too little influence” in politics — in other words, questions measuring explicitly racist attitudes.

The second set of questions I examined measures what scholars call racial resentment. These questions measure perceptions of the persistence of racial inequality and discrimination by asking respondents whether they agree or disagree with these statements:

• Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
• Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
• Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
• It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.

I also looked at responses to the question “How much discrimination do black people face?”,as well as whether respondents support government assistance to African-Americans, including employment protections.

This second group of questions examines issues related to colorblind racism. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes in “Racism Without Racists,” colorblind racism is “racism lite,” in which “instead of proclaiming God placed minorities in the world in a servile position, it suggests they are behind because they do not work hard enough.”

Among non-Hispanic whites, there are strong and persistent gaps between Republicans and Democrats, with at least 22-point gaps in opinion on each issue I examined. The deepest divide is on whether blacks should work their way up, as Irish- and Italian-Americans supposedly did, which divided members of the two parties by 30 points.


On racial stereotyping, the gaps are smaller, with only an 8-point gap in the share saying black people are unintelligent, but an 18-point gap in the share saying they are “lazy.” While only 7 percent of Democrats believe that blacks have too much influence over politics, 25 percent of Republicans do. With regard to the government’s role in ameliorating racial inequality, the split was even larger, with 35-point gaps on whether the government should help blacks or blacks should help themselves, and on whether or not it is the government’s job to ensure fair treatment in the workplace.


Examining self-identified conservatives and liberals gives similar results, with gaps of 26 to 38 percentage points on issues related to colorblind racism, gaps averaging 17 points on the stereotyping questions and gaps averaging 40 points on questions about government aid.


In a piece last year, journalists Nate Silver and Allison McCann investigated whether white Republicans were more racist than white Democrats. They focused on questions that examine racial stereotyping, such as whether blacks are lazier or less intelligent than whites and whether a white person would feel comfortable with a close family member marrying a black person. On many of these questions, partisan gaps have disappeared. However, on the question of whether blacks “lack the motivation to pull themselves out of poverty,” the partisan gap is large: In the 2012 survey, 57 percent of white Republicans and 41 percent of white Democrats agreed.

Silver and McCann concluded that “there’s a partisan gap, although not as large of one as some political commentators might assert. There are white racists in both parties. By most questions, they represent a minority of white voters in both parties.” However, assuming Bonilla-Silva is correct that institutional racism is the primary problem today, the questions Silver and McCann used didn’t adequately address the real partisan gaps on race.

My analysis suggests that focusing on stereotyping and other explicitly racist attitudes rather than structural racism obscures much of the differences between how Republicans and Democrats think about race. The two parties are significantly divided on whether entrenched barriers still hamper upward mobility for blacks and whether government should intervene.

That said, we cannot be sanguine about how explicit racial stereotyping influences conservative politics. Those who claim, as economist Alex Tabarrok did before the 2012 election, that “it is undeniable that some Americans are racist but racists split about evenly across the parties” are mistaken. In reality, while 23 percent of Democrats say black people are lazy, 41 percent of Republicans do. And among strong Democrats and strong Republicans, the numbers become even more stark, 20 percent compared with 46 percent. Furthermore, 41 percent of whites who say they are extremely conservative believe black people are lazy, compared with 14 percent of whites who say they are extremely liberal. On the question of whether black people are unintelligent, it’s 30 percent for extremely conservative whites versus 11 percent for extremely liberal whites. This clearly suggests that racial animus is more prevalent among conservatives and Republicans.

It also accounts for why debates about race in America are subject to such deep partisan conflict. Since the civil rights movement, Americans have broadly rejected explicit expressions of racism. On the question of black intelligence, the gaps are smallest between the two parties, suggesting that views of inherent black inferiority are rejected across the political spectrum — or are simply too taboo to admit. But on issues of discrimination, the persistence of racism and the importance of history, the parties are sharply divided.

Law professor Ian Haney Lopez argued, “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.” He noted that these other forms of racism “are easily used to manipulate broad swaths of the American electorate.”

In 2005, Republicans apologized for the post-1968 Southern strategy of targeting white voters with thinly veiled racial appeals. But a decade later, as the rise of Donald Trump illustrates, they haven’t stopped using it.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera America. 

Most Americans don’t vote in elections. Here’s why

New U.S. Census data released on July 19 confirm what we already knew about American elections: Voter turnout in the United States is among the lowest in the developed world. Only 42 percent of Americans voted in the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest level of voter turnout since 1978. And midterm voters tend to be older, whiter and richer than the general population. The aggregate number is important but turnout among different groups is even more crucial.

Politicians are more accountable and responsive to wealthy voters, not just because rich people vote in elections, but because they are also more likely to donate to campaigns or work on them to get their candidates elected. And the effects of the gap in voter turnout are far-reaching because, for many Americans, elections are one of the only ways in which they can participate in democracy.

Boosting voter participation

Gaps in voter turnout exacerbate the United States’ already unequal political system. Its uniquely difficult electoral system is responsible for much of the low voter participation. This includes the practice of filling key offices during midterm or off-cycle elections, the odd Electoral College, a majoritarian rather than proportional system and the voter registration barrier, which leaves the responsibility for voter registration to citizens. (In most countries, the government conducts voter education and registration.) It doesn’t help that one of the two main political partiesviews reducing voter turnout as a key to its electoral success. Furthermore, the fact that the United States disenfranchises its many felons contributes to the low turnout.

To illustrate why the turnout gap matters, a recent study by political scientist Robert Erikson found that the median voter in 2008 in terms of income was at the 66th percentile for the general population. And as political scientist Michael Barber estimates, fewer than 3 percent of campaign donors, who give more than $200, make less than $50,000 — almost the same as the median household income in the United States. Assuming that politicians respond to the median voter, they are less likely to favor policies of redistribution than they would if they responded to the median citizen.


There is also another, less recognized factor at play. In her 2005 book, “How Policies Make Citizens,” political scientist Andrea Louise Campbell argued that government structures and policies could either facilitate or deter citizen participation in politics. For example, Campbell notes that the establishment of Social Security led to increased civic participation by the elderly (especially the poor), by motivating them to defend and seek the program’s expansion. By contrast, the stigma associated with welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) led to a decrease in voter turnout.

Other studies corroborate Campbell’s findings. A 2010 study on the role of public policies in civic and political engagement found that initiatives such as Head Start, a federal program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition and other services to low-income children and their families, increase political participation, while welfare and public housing assistance policies reduce it. Similarly, Suzanne Mettler, author of “Soldiers to Citizens,”argues that the GI Bill, which provided many benefits to World War II veterans, boosted their civic participation. Veterans had a positive experience with the program and felt that they were treated with dignity and respect, which lead to greater political participation, not only through voting but also by boosting veterans’ involvement in civic organizations.

As I’ve noted before, voters’ affinity to and identification with political parties and their perception of the differences between the two parties also affect turnout. It’s deleterious to voter participation to pretend that there are not substantive differences between Republicans and Democrats. Last year, the Progressive Change Institute, which promotes progressive policy response to political issues, asked 1,500 of the so-called “drop-off” voters, who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but did not vote in the 2014 midterm election, what policies would motivate them to vote in 2016. As the chart below illustrates, potential voters listed progressive policies such as debt-free college, universal pre-K and a living wage job guarantee.


Why don’t Americans vote?

In a 2012 USA Today poll, 59 percent of non-voters said they were frustrated by the fact that “nothing ever gets done” in government while 54 percent cited “corruption” and 42 percent pointed to the lack of difference between the two parties. About 37 percent said politics doesn’t make much difference in their lives.


These results suggest that the most effective Republican disenfranchisement strategy may not be voter ID laws, but grinding government to a halt. By forcing government shutdowns, Republican leaders and lawmakers have significantly reduced voter participation to historic lows (see chart below). Less than 1 in 5 Americans believe that government works for the benefit of everyone. Furthermore, recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. FEC, which led to the influx of corporate cash into politics and the rise of the donor class, have together turned more people away from politics.


But we can’t blame only conservatives for the low voter turnout. Many Americans forgo voting because they don’t see differences between Democrats and Republicans. “Respondents who perceive a greater difference between the candidates … are more likely to vote,” political scientists Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, write in their book, “Who Votes Now?” “Those in the top income quintile see a larger difference between the candidates on ideology than do those in the bottom quintile.” Their findings support claims made in recent cross-national research and a previous study by political scientist David Brockington, in which he argues that when individuals feel ideological affinity to candidates, they are more likely to vote. In addition, “choice-rich environments,” in which parties span a wider ideological range, also boost voter turnout.

Ahead of the 2016 elections, Democrats need to embrace popular progressive policies to convince potential voters that they are indeed different and that they offer real solutions. Americans must also fight back against voter suppression attempts, among other things, by demanding automatic voter registration. Moreover, in order to reduce the power of money in politics and limit the influence of the donor class, lawmakers must work to increase the power of the people through public financing and strict lobbying regulations.

But these steps aren’t enough. Voters must also pressure the candidates to put forward a vision that benefits the middle and lower class. People are far more likely to participate in politics if they feel that government plays an important and beneficial role in their lives. Policies such as debt-free college, universal child-care and pre-K education, a higher minimum wage and living wage job guarantees could increase voter turnout and civic engagement. American democracy is not for sale. The voting booth is a potent force against the power of plutocracy.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.