I grew up in the 1950s, an era when many believed that our society would inevitably progress toward ever greater economic equality. Desperate poverty would recede, it was assumed, as new federal programs addressed the needs of those at the very bottom of the ladder and as economic growth created new jobs. The average CEO at the time earned only twenty times as much as the average worker, and during the Eisenhower administration the marginal tax rate for the highest earners was 91 percent. Today, the goal of equality appears to be receding. The top marginal tax rate is only 39 percent, far below what it was during the Eisenhower years, and most Republicans would like to lower it even more. Employers now make 271 times as much as the average worker, and half the children in American schools are officially classified by the federal government as low-income and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Union membership peaked in the mid-1950s and has declined ever since; the largest unions today are in the public sector and only about 7 percent of private sector workers belong to a union.
Despite these alarming developments, however, politicians who support the deregulation of business and champion pro-employer legislation—from state legislators to members of Congress—have a firm electoral foothold in most states. During the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump promised to support basic government services like Medicare and pledged to bring back jobs that had been outsourced to other nations. However, once he was president, Trump endorsed health care bills that would have left millions of low- and lower-middle-income Americans without health insurance, and his insistence on reducing corporate tax rates suggests his determination to act in the interest of wealthy elites.
Two recent books—Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America and Gordon Lafer’s The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time—seek to explain several puzzling aspects of American politics today. Why do people of modest means who depend on government-funded health care and Social Security or other supplements to their income continue to vote for candidates who promise to privatize or get rid of those very programs? Why do people who are poor vote for politicians who promise to cut corporate taxes?
Both books follow in the path of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016), which documented an astonishing effort by the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, and other billionaires to purchase politicians in support of such goals as…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.