Thomas B. Edsall’s craft is the Old Mole’s, which is one of the several useful vocations that fell out of style long ago. The New Politics of Inequality has the effect of the patient laying of a mine and its bold detonation of the ground where most of us franchised to assess American politics have until now set our assumptions.
The force of the explosion may be most accurately, if discomfitingly, gauged by listing the axioms substantially taken for granted whose pretensions to substance Edsall has all but blown away.
Axiom 1: Ronald Reagan has created a revolution.
Instead, Edsall argues, he only rode a wind already raised to bear him forward. The breezes blew friendliest for social liberalism under Richard Nixon, but had already begun to wither under Jimmy Carter. Nixon’s first four years were defined by the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and steady, even heady, increases in Social Security and food stamp allotments. Carter’s only term was exemplified in Congress’s enactment of the 1978 Internal Revenue Act, “the first major tax bill since the 1930s that did not skew benefits toward those at the bottom and middle of the income spectrum.” In the last year the Democrats controlled all three branches of government, they had exercised their authority to abandon the root principle of the New Deal before Reagan had his chance to fall upon it.
Axiom 2: The politics most serviceable to the general welfare is the kind most infused with the abstract spirit of moral uplift.
Instead, the procedural reforms inspired by Watergate appear to have piled their plates highest for the engorgement of the greedy. At least to my own knowledge, Edsall is the first observer to chronicle the triumph of this paradox, and we may credit his insight as much to a minor weakness as to his several major strengths. There are in his prose intimations of certain deficiencies in the area of the winsome. He seems somehow to fall short of those genialities of manner that are often worth more than mere enterprise for commending the journalist to his superiors as candidate for assignment to major politicians—assignments that are at least as ambassadorial as inspectional.
Edsall has progressed from the Providence Journal, the Baltimore Sun, and at last to The Washington Post. We can be sure that he was valued everywhere and still hear the affectionate but not untrusting general verdict of his editors: “Edsall…a dour fellow. Give him the budget hearings; he can take it.” If he was judged a trifle prickly as companion for those who sell the sausage, he was condemned, we may surmise, to the factory floor with the sausage makers, a humble precinct but unbeatable as a point of vantage. “The genesis of this book,” he tells us, “lies, in part, in the experience of spending four long days and much of each of those nights covering the proceedings of the Senate Budget Committee in March 1981.”
The budget process turned out to be the resource for Edsall that the parliamentary blue books were for Karl Marx. The most inspiring places can often be those that offer the smallest expectations. Once deprived of the expansive fraternity and pinched enlightenment of campaign excursions, Edsall had opportunities for revelation denied the rest of us.
He could, for example, recognize the working out of those 1975 reforms that had been aimed to open government up, especially with their guarantees of public access to official proceedings. He found himself watching results that were the direct opposite of the original intention:
There are still no representatives of the general-interest press and television at the overwhelming majority of congressional committee sessions. Instead, public access to these meetings is used primarily by lobbyists and publications catering to special-interest groups. Similarly, the Freedom of Information Act is used far more by corporations seeking to gain an advantage over, and information about, competitors than for the disclosure of governmental activity to the general public.
Government had invited the lowliest of its citizens to cast upon its workings as cold an eye as he chose; and almost nobody came to look except the lobbyists; and it took only six years for them to reach their apogee as welcome familiars.
In an extraordinary delegation of power, Congress, with the full support of the Reagan administration, permitted key representatives of the business lobbying community to write the key provisions of the 1981 tax cut as they affected the corporate income tax. As part of his tax bill, President Reagan accepted what was known as 10-5-3 legislation, written by a small group of business lobbyists, generally tax specialists representing the most influential of American corporations, increasing the value of the investment tax credit and sharply accelerating the depreciation schedule on new investments.
Axiom 3: An increase in the public’s trust of corporate management since its Watergate nadir explains why business is now sovereign in the political marketplace.
Instead, “after falling to 22 percent in the mid-1970s, the percentage of the public saying that it ‘has a great deal of confidence’ in the leaders of major corporations has remained at an historic low, fluctuating between 16 and 27 percentage points, despite the steady erosion of the memory of Watergate and associated scandals…. The success of corporate advocacy advertising has probably been to cast public doubt on the solutions offered by adversaries of business. The most consistent theme of corporate advocacy and public-interest advertising has been a sustained attack on the use of government money and regulation to solve social problems.”
Axiom 4: Degrees of social and moral conscience will be restored to our politics as the power of its traditional brokers is weakened, the authority of party organizations erodes, voters and their representatives cast off inhibitions by the parochial and the partisan, and the old, who are by definition corrupt, at last make way for the young, who are equally by definition virtuous.
Instead, Edsall shows that the last decade began a fervid pursuit of these ideals and arrived at consequences that, under Edsall’s scrutiny, turn out to be the reverse of those anticipated.
That contradiction ought not to be a surprise; there is a full synopsis of relevant political wisdom in Melbourne’s comment after he had sought to soothe Irish discontents with Catholic emancipation and found them more pestilent than ever. “What all the wise men promised has not happened,” Melbourne said afterward, “and what all the damned fools said has come to pass.”
The Democratic party has, to take a case, swallowed most of the doses served up by its reformers and is, if anything, sicker with the remedy than it was with the disease. The compounding of the open presidential primaries that was designed to broaden participation in the party’s control turns out in fact to have narrowed it.
In general elections, as Edsall points out, the Republicans tend to draw their greatest strength more from the top third, and the Democrats from the bottom third, of the income scale. The exchange leaves the Democrats markedly disadvantaged: in 1980, the 40 percent of American families with annual incomes below $15,000 cast 32.9 percent of the presidential vote, while the 44.7 percent with incomes above $20,000 accounted for 52.7 percent. This class disparity in turnout can explain both the Democratic party’s decline as a national force and the increasing incoherence of its policies.
Every presidential campaign is an uneven struggle for the Democrats, because upper-middle-class Republicans exercise the franchise so much more assiduously than lower-middle-class Democrats. And the apathy of the Democrats’ largest constituency toward the ballot, being even more pronounced in primary than in general elections, stifles most concerns the party may still have about reflecting the sentiments and serving the desires of the majority of its rank and file.
For, as Edsall notes, the Democratic party’s procedural reforms have “promoted a system for the selection of delegates to the presidential convention that undercut in varying degrees the party’s most loyal voting blocks. In primaries, compared to general elections, the affluent are overrepresented by a margin of 41.8 percent, the better educated by a margin of 94 percent, and blacks [except, we may presume, for occasional infusions of encouragement like those let loose by Jesse Jackson] are underrepresented by 35.6 percent.”
The accompanying ironies began to display themselves almost at once when the McGovern Commission’s plan for shifting party control to the broad mass of its supporters produced a 1972 Democratic convention in which close to a third of the delegates were drawn from the top-most 5 percent of the income bracket.
The delegate selection process had, Edsall observes, “shifted from the party structure and leadership in all the states to an elite group of voters who turn out in disproportionately large numbers and who have no direct interest in seeking representation for political and economic goals that diverge from their own. In terms of income and status, there may be only slight differences between these two elites, but the political survival of party and elected officials depended at least in part on their ability to represent a broad cross-section of the Democratic party.”
But then rather more often than not revolutions act themselves out with the overthrow of one set of the well-to-do and its replacement by another. The vanguard of this particular revolution was drawn from the fortunate class, whose majority is sufficiently inclined to vote Republican for reasons of self-interest to suggest that such members as apostatize are most easily recognizable for an outsized assurance of their own idealism.
It is, however, not often an idealism repelled by the advantages inherent in its own class; and its tests for political virtue infrequently extend to the one that Edsall insists is primary: “The distribution of income and wealth in a democratic country goes to the heart of its political ethic, defining the basic contours of a nation’s sense of justice and equity.”
This old-fashioned distrust of morality in the abstract illuminates his judgment of the transient, if not illusory, renaissance of the Democrats after Watergate. The party’s more than two-to-one majority in the 1975 House of Representatives was established mainly by collecting twenty-six new seats in suburban districts unsettled from their normal bearings by Republican scandals. These fresh congressmen arrived acutely aware that only the most intense solicitude for the feelings of their constituents could maintain this sudden and tenuous hold on their support.
They had been sent to Washington as reformers. Edsall limits the reformer to two choices. He can address himself to procedure (“the making of changes in the legislative or political process, usually with the intent of achieving some kind of ethical, moral, or at least behavioral improvement in the conduct of politicians”). Or he can essay substantive reform (“an attempt to use government to correct a compelling social or economic problem [which] often involves the alteration of the relationship between government and citizen”).
In the balance of these options, all the comforts lay on the side of the procedural. By then, economic history had ceased to smile upon the Democrats. As a party they had represented, while not often enough serving, the cheated classes. The coalition that had carried them through good times and bad had never been free of interior quarrel; but the steady swell of the gross national product had eased or anyway masked the tensions between the cheated lower middle class and the worst-cheated poor throughout the Sixties.
“What had been a society of extensive income mobility in the 1960s became a society of income and economic stagnation in the 1970s. Such stagnation, in turn, eroded the fragile consensus behind Democratic domestic spending programs.” This rivening of their accustomed base confronted the Democrats with a problem that even the most heroic endeavors might well have found intractable. They recoiled from the substance and rushed to the procedural; and Common Cause emerged as grand protagonist on the stage of the Seventies to leave behind the Federal Election Commission as the most resonant echo of its reign.
Common Cause’s message was markedly more attractive to prevailing Democratic than to Republican taste; and yet its conquests were nowhere more ravaging than upon those territories where the Democrats had been accustomed to conduct their business and the state’s business as a kind of commercial exchange. The lubricant of that exchange was the “bartering and trading of votes, favors, jobs, and other benefits, often behind closed doors, which make the negotiation and resolution of much larger issues possible, facilitating those compromises essential to the operation of government, particularly in the pluralistic, non-ideological politics of the United States.”
That style of governing has been cast out of fashion by most chroniclers besides Edsall, whose intelligence is so eccentric that he seems to care more about the things that ought to be done than about extremes of delicacy in the means of doing them. The junior Democrats were almost to a man and woman vessels undampened by eccentricities, and they thirsted to be filled with the spirits of procedural reform, not least, in Edsall’s view, because it “alienated no blocs of voters, including traditional bases of economic support” and “provided a large group of young and aggressive Democrats with a vehicle for publicity and for the creation of an appearance of effectiveness.”
One alternative to Common Cause’s agenda was that of the AFL-CIO, and, for the congressional freshman with his way to make, it was ridiculously easy to snub.
As a handbook of political chemistry, Edsall’s is unique for its exposition of the aphrodisiacal potency of corporate treasuries when it comes to seducing the ideologue from his troth. Those representatives from the new right who entered Congress in minor force in the Sixties came there with a distaste for the welfare state that extended to its business subsidies. Washington’s commercial lobbyists met these newcomers with a reciprocal distrust, and could afford to keep at a distance because their small numbers isolated them as a cadre of cranks. But the purist right broadened its original strength of four senators to eleven by 1980, and its progress at once made it respectable and adulterated its purity.
Distinctions in economic goals between the new right and the corporate lobbies are by now quite dissolved; and the business political action committees confidently safeguard their federal subsidies with bountiful contributions to candidates they can trust to keep the reach of their intolerance of permissive social behavior short of the tax code’s shelter for the alcoholic lunch.
Since ideology is so permeable a defense against the temptations of campaign finance, there is little cause to be stupefied by the agility of junior Democratic legislators who arrived without much ideology to cast it off. Most of those whose incumbency dates from 1974 had replaced Republicans in districts with a suburban tilt. Their success gave further credence to the already widespread theory that the Democratic future lay in the middle class. It was a concept especially persuasive for them because they knew the fragility of their grip upon voters who had but lately been Richard Nixon’s. They could serve themselves best if they essayed no changes in the domestic economy beyond those that did not intrude upon the convenience of their constituent majority, and if they reserved any flights of adventurism for foreign policies and political reforms.
They had small reason to take account of the labor movement’s good will and even less to fear its disfavor. In 1975 the House of Representatives was still sufficiently sensitive to the AFL-CIO to send its common situs picketing bill—allowing construction unions to close down building sites—along for President Ford’s veto. By 1977, Jimmy Carter was president and common situs was revived with his blessing, only to be reentombed by a vote of 217 to 205, after eleven of its 1975 Democratic supporters had switched to “Nay.” When the unions reacted with a cut in their campaign contributions, these apostate congressmen more than made up for the loss by resorting to those corporate political action committees that had turned out to constitute the only sizable throng of civic activists to pour through the open door to government which Common Cause had won for them.
It had become not just safe but profitable to offend the unions. Having by then lost sixteen of labor’s most reliable Senate friends to sixteen of its enemies, AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland sought rescue in his loneliness through building coalitions with NOW, the NAACP, and other groups representative of tendencies that George Meany, his predecessor, had scorned in the days when labor could afford condescension or worse.
His new partners in desperation anointed Kirkland as their spokesman at the 1981 hearings of the House Budget Committee. He is a culinary craftsman of unusual skills; and we may take it for granted that he prepared the old-fashioned Democratic social program for his bill of fare with a shrewder hand with salt and sauce than had lately touched it. The observing Edsall was struck most by the sniffiness of its reception by the Democratic congressmen at the table.
The response of Congressman Leon Panetta of California was a haughty reproof: “I think,” he said, “that it is generally accepted that President Reagan won the victory he did largely based on the frustrations of the people with a lot of what the government has been doing over the years. Your proposals generally endorse more of the same.”
Kirkland was being treated to the ineffably snobbish tone that success visits upon failure. Edsall recalls, with a nostalgia not untinctured with bitterness, those hours, hardly a decade gone, when Meany used to say approvingly that “our members…have become ‘middle-class.’ “
If that was ever the case, it no longer is. The unions of teamsters and steel and auto workers that used to be the labor movement’s largest part have been depleted by what looks more and more like permanent changes in the economy’s structure; and the corporations that Meany once mistook for fraternal collaborators have seized the chance to show themselves as in fact aggressively hostile.
The AFL-CIO has preserved its ancient weight nowhere except with the Democratic National Committee, which is more than ever dependent on labor contributions now that it is too infrequently a maker of presidents to command much of a price anywhere else. The committee is also barred from the alternative outlets for selling that relieve Democrats in office from having to smile across the counter when Lane Kirkland comes to shop. The unions are descending into the company of those they used to look down on and find themselves the most recent victims of a process that, having made the poor a nullity, now advances toward casting the lower middle class out of account.
In The Washington Post of January 20, Juan Williams provided a striking footnote to Edsall’s thesis. The White House, he reported, had settled at last upon a strategy to touch up its poor image with blacks. “The administration,” said Williams,
plans to start its work with blacks by appealing to receptive pockets of black Americans, mainly business people.
Administration officials believe that enough blacks are in middle income brackets to provide a target audience for their appeal.
“We want to segment the black community essentially the way we segment the rest of America,” said Steven J. Rhodes, assistant to the vice president for domestic policy.
To segment means to divide with calculations of form and nicety, in this case to separate the one-quarter of persons of color who reside above the national income median and the three-quarters who lodge beneath it according to the pattern with which, as Rhodes so tellingly puts it, “we segment the rest of America.”
The Democrats have fallen back upon those on the bottom three steps on the income ladder whom they do not, and by now cannot, really serve, while the Republicans exult in the possession of those on the top three rungs to whose satisfactions they can both conscientiously and reliably cater.
That scheme, Edsall suggests, is the ordained future of our polity. The President did not create his revolution; but he may have made it permanent. By reducing taxes and expanding the defense budget, he has fixed in place a federal deficit that is “an inescapable and central question facing the House, the Senate, and the White House, whether control of any or all of these is held by the Republican or by the Democratic party,” Edsall writes. “The presence of such a large deficit severely restricts any spending initiative by the Democratic party…. The centrality of the deficit in the national debate inherently provides a strong conservative tenor to the national debate, forcing Democrats to choose between raising taxes or more red ink.”
Viewed from that perspective, the deficit looms less as a perilous fault than as a fortification of the rock of the new conservative dispensation—a wall against which every revived liberal impulse must beat throughout all perceptible time to come.
“The power shift that produced the fundamental policy realignment of the past decade did not result,” Edsall concludes, “from a conservative or Republican realignment of the voters…. Rather, these policy changes have grown out of pervasive distortions of this country’s democratic political processes. These distortions have created a system of political decision making in which fundamental issues—the distribution of the tax burden, the degree to which the government sanctions the accumulation of wealth, the role of federal regulation, the level of publicly tolerated poverty, and the relative strength of labor and management—are resolved by an increasingly unrepresentative economic elite…. As long as the balance of power remains so heavily weighted toward those with economic power, national economic policy will remain distorted, regardless of which party is in control of the federal government.”
The New Politics of Inequality appeared last summer and has not so much circulated as coagulated. Its notices were meager, departing from the indifferent only into the direction of the hostile, a not altogether unsurprising reception for a tone so sparse if not lacking in grace notes, an assessment so grim, and projections so daunting. Edsall lacks the fierce poetry of Marx and the serene detachment of Tocqueville; but all the same, he is singular these days in having no cause to blush in their company. In his drab way, he persuades those patient enough to attend him into an impressive succession of shocks, one of which is that we may have been reading the wrong George Orwell. It was a waste of time to take alarm at 1984. A certain despair would have been more to the point because, all the while, numbly and complacently, we had been trudging along the road to Wigan Pier.