The Republican Party runs populist culturally conservative campaigns, but its policymaking mainly benefits the already well-off. In a time of rising economic inequality, how do they get away with that? Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson find that Republicans have to ramp up the outrage stoking due to their lack of broad policy appeals. The Republican Party’s economic positioning is internationally extreme and threatens to undermine U.S. democracy. In this conversational edition, we assess plutocratic populism and its consequences.
Study: Let Them Eat Tweets
Matt Grossmann: This week on the Science of Politics, how the plutocrats win from the populist right. For the Niskanen center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Although the Republican party has run populist, culturally conservative campaigns, it’s policymaking has mainly benefited the already well-off. How do they get away with that? Especially in a time of rising economic inequality.
Today, I talked to Jacob Hacker of Yale University and Paul Pierson of the University of California, Berkeley about their new book, addressing this puzzle, Let Them Eat Tweets. In this conversational edition of the podcast, we also discuss their other books, Off Center: Winner Take All Politics and American Amnesia. And I interject more than usual. The Republican party’s economic positioning really is internationally extreme and Hacker and Pierson fear it is helping undermine us democracy. Their books offer a side of political science that is more cohesive and more activist. And they’ve been quite prescient. I asked Jacob to start with the big picture takeaways from the new book.
Jacob Hacker: Yeah. So the book basically argues that the current Republican party has been reconstituted over the last generation by rising inequality and a strategy of outrage stoking that the party has adopted to try to attract voters despite that rising inequality. So we call this sort of new party, a form of plutocratic populism. And the crucial argument we make is that rising inequality has really placed the Republican party in a kind of conservative dilemma.
And it’s had to respond to that inequality because it is basically very closely tied to those at the top of the economic spectrum and to corporations. Those policies that those are the top want aren’t very popular. So meanwhile, the party’s really had to figure out how an electoral strategy for keeping voters who are losing from rising inequality in the fold. And to do that, it’s relied a lot on these outrage stoking groups like the NRA. And so the result is plutocratic populism, and we argue that really emerged before Donald Trump, but that Donald Trump was in a lot of ways, a product of this transformation.
Matt Grossmann: Paul, a lot of those themes go back to your book Off Center. How much has changed in your thinking since then and how much has changed in the real world since then?
Paul Pierson: Well, I think we’re still at it because we believe that what we wrote then is, is still really relevant to thinking about what’s been happening in American politics. I think we were right to focus on the transformation of the Republican party and the interconnection between what was happening to the Republican party and rising inequality in the United States. And so I think a lot of the puzzles that we were interested in then, we still think are really important ones to focus on.
But I think in part we wrote this book both because the world has changed and because the world has changed in ways that I think reveal much more clearly some of the things that we missed in that earlier book. The Republican party has continued to radicalize. I think even though we often have been accused of being sort of shrill and alarmist in our views about the party, I don’t think actually, as we look at the evolution over the last almost two decades now, since we wrote that first book or we’re working on that first book, I think if anything, we’ve sort of underestimated the course of extremism within the party.
And then of course the other thing that I think we really missed in our earlier work and we’ve really tried to wrestle with in this book is the centrality of racial cleavages and racial resentment as being a critical and increasingly prominent part of the formula through which the Republican party tries to rule in a changing America. And so we’ve really in the current book, I think tried to wrestle with that in a way, partly because with the election of Donald Trump, I think we like many political analysts realized that we underestimated the force of a racialized politics and the ability to run a kind of George Wallace style political movement in 21st century America.
Matt Grossman: So Jacob, you say, I think in the first line that it’s not a book about Trump, but obviously we’re all thinking in that context now. So what has Trump changed? And in what ways is he just a culmination of the trends you’ve been tracking in Republican politics?
Jacob Hacker: Well, we thought that it was particularly important to say that because of the title of the book, Let Them Eat Tweets. Trump’s version of outrage stoking through Twitter is distinctive to Trump, but we really want to explain that this story predates Trump. Since the election there’s been this very prominent line on what’s happening to the Republican party, that basically argues as I think Paul Ryan put it, the Trump GOP, or the Trump wing beat the Reagan wing of the GOP. And we discussed that in with the playful title, A Very Civil War. The civil war between the establishment and the Trump wing has turned out to be one, the Republican establishment, the kind of more economically conservative and more money oriented part of the party has gotten so much of what it wants under Trump.
So I think Trump was a break from past Republicans in his rhetoric and emphasis during the campaign. And indeed I think he won the nomination in part because his more economically populous stance was popular with the white working class voters on which the party had come to increasingly rely as American society grew more diverse. And Republicans were definitely who were in the sort of plutocratic side of the party, the part of the party that was tied to corporations and the wealthy, they were very concerned about Trump.
They were concerned he was going to lose, but they are also concerned that he might not pursue big tax cuts for the rich or put as much emphasis on massive deregulation as they would like. And it turned out they didn’t need to be concerned. I mean, 2017 was as Mitch McConnell put it, a great year for conservatives. He said it was the best year for conservatives on all fronts.
And so I think that what we’ve decided is that Trump is an intensification of a longstanding set of trends within the Republican party, both the alliance with the plutocrats and the degree to which the party is resorting to outrage stoking to stay in power. But because he has so intensified, both of these, he’s really brought out into the open elements of the party machine that weren’t there, and I think, brought out risks of the approach that weren’t as apparent before his rise.
Matt Grossmann: So, Paul, we both love this book, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy that you all rely upon. And one reading is that these concerns about the Republican party go back along a way and are almost universal to conservative parties. That they are always looking to expand their upper-class economic constituency by stoking social and nationalists concerns. And that they’re always less than thrilled with the democratization or full popularization of politics. So does that suggest that this isn’t unique to Republicans? And then the second, I guess, version of that is it’s a comparison of Germany and the UK and UK conservatives are sort of the success case there, as having built a larger constituency for social and economic conservatism. So aren’t the Republicans at least a little more like the UK case than the German case?
Paul Pierson: Well, they used to be, the question is whether they still are. And let me just back up for a second and talk about Ziblatt’s work because yeah, we are admirers of that book as well as his broader body of work. And actually some of the early seeds of this project came out of a period when I was sharing an office with Dan in Paris. And I was actually working on some of the stuff for American Amnesia, and he was working on that conservative parties book, and we had a lot of conversations. And I think both of us came away from those conversations, a little alarmed at the parallels that we saw, even though we were talking about events separated by a century. And even though of course, some of the events that he was looking at in the German case had led to some unbelievably horrific outcomes.
And I think one of the things we try to do in this book without, without expending too many pages on it, because we were trying to produce, produce a book that was pretty compact and focused, was to link some of the discussions about what’s going on in the US to findings in comparative politics, which have really, I think focused in interesting ways on the relationship between elites and democracy. And with concerns about inequalities of power and also whether elites can find a home within a developing democracy that feels comfortable to them. That turns out to be really critical and as Ziblatt argues, a lot of that runs through conservative parties who face this potential dilemma. And how they deal with that dilemma turns out to be really fateful for democracy. Now a critical aspect of the argument that he develops there and we extend on it. And I think also show that there’s broader comparative research that points in the sand direction, that a lot of how this gets dealt with depends on how much inequality there is.
The greater the inequality, the more fraught this challenge becomes because elites have more power if things are more unequal. Their preferences diverge from those of ordinary citizens to a greater degree. And as a consequence of that, they’re more uncomfortable with democracy. So I think you’re right in saying that for much of its history, the Republican party actually looked more like what we described as the UK path, where they moderate on economic issues at least to a degree. And find ways to develop these alternative appeals to voters, but they do so in a way that they’re sort of able to control and to keep from getting out of control.
But as inequality grows, that challenge, the conservative dilemma intensifies. The challenge becomes more difficult. And so there has been this journey that we try to chronicle. And when we were looking at the George W. Bush administration, I think we were catching things at a fairly early stage of this, where the party had was just in the process of kind of decisively siding with what we loosely call the plutocrats, you could call economic elites and we could unpack that a little bit.
The full consequences of that that were not yet emergent, but when they make that move, it then forces a series of additional choices and particular kind of the development of this kind of outrage based politics, the development of a stronger relationship with surrogates, like the NRA like the Christian right, and right wing media, which we think is a very important element of this, that we hadn’t explored enough in our prior work. And all of that creates a much more fraught politics, which unfortunately it looks less like the UK path or much of the UK path of the Tories and more like the path that we see in less promising cases.
Matt Grossmann: So Jacob, Paul says that the effects of rising inequality are very important for this conservative dilemma, but isn’t there a possibility that this is really just more a problem for the left and it doesn’t work out as we expect it to? That is you would think more resources at the top would make class politics and economic concern more important. But most of the comparative research suggests it’s at least as likely to help the right and at least as likely to move concerns to nationalism and ethnocentrism. So does rising inequality have more problems for the right or the left and does it work out as we expect?
Jacob Hacker: Well, I think it’s important to understand first, that the increase in inequality in the United States, which has sort of reactivated this historic conservative dilemma is really without peer among rich democracies, rich Western democracies. We’ve seen a doubling of the share of income going to the top 1% over the last generation.
In fact, most of that’s gone to tiny slices of the top 1% of the top, 0.1%, 0.01%. And then at the same time, you’ve seen a huge decline in the relative standing and indeed absolute standing, in many cases, of the broad majority of Americans, the bottom half of Americans have seen their share of national income essentially cut in half. So that’s a really big change, and I think that when we say, what’s the effect of inequality, we want to make sure that we’re talking about that the scale of inequality we see in the United States. And I think the standard way in which political scientists want to look at this is at the individual level. And I think you’re right, there’s a fair amount of evidence that at the individual level, people don’t respond to rising inequality in the way that kind of standard political science models might suggest they would.
That is, they move dramatically left if they’re on the losing side of rising inequality. But I think it’s really important to understand that our argument operates at the elite level. It’s really a problem for the Republican party to figure out how it can continue to win elections, to win over voters when at the same time it’s increasingly embracing a group, a tiny group, at the top of the economic ladder and pursuing policies that are not just favorable to those at the top. But increasingly, we see they’re really unpopular among the rest of Americans and even among Republican voters. So it’s that dilemma that really then leads to the increasing emphasis on other dimensions of conflict that particularly on race, identity-based appeals and on social conservative issues. And I think it’s so common for us to sort of rush out and start interviewing voters or looking at public opinion polls that we tend to take the sort of issues that voters prioritize as given.
But I think a big part of our argument is that as the Republicans came to lean much more on this kind of outrage stoking, they really helped shift the focus of a significant instead of voters and to make them more and more see politics as a war, a war against government, a war against Democrats, a war against elite urban people and alas, also struggle against the massive demographic changes happening in our society and that’s our argument. And if you look across countries, there’s actually a lot of evidence to suggest and across history, there’s actually a lot of evidence to suggest that that’s true. And it suggests that yes, inequality reshapes politics, and sometimes it reshapes it in ways that lead to more conservative outcomes. But it’s as much an elite story as a mass story.
Matt Grossmann: So, Paul, one thing that’s made it easier for Republican elites is that they have all these institutional advantages in the American system that caused them to only need, I guess, about a 45% coalition like the Senate and the electoral college. They’ve also been more intensely focused on policies that set the rules than the Democrats. So how should Democrats think about that situation? Are these just the rules of the game that mean that they are going to have to appeal to what is really more of the center right part of the electorate, or the more socially concerned part of the electorate, or is there a path where they’re even more focused on changing the rules, then the Republicans?
Paul Pierson: That’s a great question, Matt, and it’s worth stopping just for a second to recognize what a profound development this is in the story of this polity that now the kind of rural favoritism that runs through American institutions is now systematically advantages one party over the other, and it’s the electoral college, it’s the Senate, it even shows up in the House. I’m guessing you probably have had Jonathan Rodden on this podcast, or at least talked about his work, this book, Why Cities Lose, I think, is super instructive about-
Matt Grossman: We have available in the archives.
Paul Pierson: Just a little pitch there for a wonderful book, which I think is one of the many things that’s wonderful about it is the way in which it tries to situate an understanding of American politics within a broader comparative framing, which I think is enormously illuminating and very unusual among political scientists studying the United States.
So this is a huge change. There’s always been this rural bias, but it never fed so clearly into an advantage for a single party. And it has profound effects on the strategies that are available to the party, the role of voters to both parties, the role of voters, and so on. And I think, if we wanted to go down this road, we could talk more about, there’s an obvious way in which the Republicans are advantaged because it means as you say, they just need a 45% coalition and Democrats kind of need something more like a 55% coalition, but of course that also has some potentially adverse effects on a party. It can lead them down this extremist path. And there’s at least a plausible scenario now about the Trump campaign.
That the party has been led down a path, which makes them extremely vulnerable as they’re sort of captured by the more extremist elements within their party. And that could go in various ways that we could talk about it, but it’s not clear that it’s not without a lot of dangers for the longterm electoral health of the party that seems to be advantaged by this arrangements, but it is a huge challenge for the Democrats in some ways, as Jacob suggested, it encourages them to moderate. Institutional reforms, my own view about this is that there are some things that you could do at the margin that would affect this. There are reforms of the electoral college, the possibilities of adding a few States for voters who currently don’t get that kind of representation.
And I think those kinds of initiatives are important, but I think the basic rural bias that’s built into the system is unlikely to be systematically altered. You could shift it somewhat, but the Senate is the Senate and it’s not going away. And so I think that means that Democrats actually cannot give up on the idea of building a spatially broad coalition, a coalition that can reach into these areas of the electorate. I actually think that’s healthy for American democracy. I don’t think it’s healthy for American democracy to have this intense geographic cleavage, but I don’t think Democrats are going to reform their way out of that challenge.
Matt Grossmann: So Jacob, there are of course also policy specific institutions that might benefit one party or the other. And you all have been leaders in moving political science to think about those policy domain specific factors. So I was a little surprised that the story was pretty broad success for conservatism when the successes seemed pretty specific to tax policy, obviously quite important, but many of the Republican presidents have dramatically altered tax policy while having more trouble on reducing social programs and regulatory pushback. So shouldn’t we be looking to things like the reconciliation process in the Senate, issue ownership where taxes is one of the two domestic issues that Republicans control or even Grover Norquist success in the tax pledge in explaining Republican success in this area.
Jacob Hacker: Yeah. I mean, I think those are very important and it has been to Republican’s benefit that the tax code has been such a capable vehicle, if you will, for redistributing resources to the very top of the income ladder and to corporations. And I wouldn’t though, and I want to come back to that, but I wouldn’t miss the much broader set of shifts that Republicans had pursued. There’s much I agree with in Red State Blues, your wonderful book on the limits of some of these strategies at the state level. But I think as [inaudible 00:23:00] has nicely shown, one area that Republicans have done quite well is in weakening labor unions. And that was true at both the national and the state levels. And I think that’s a big part of the Democrats problem that you mentioned earlier.
They’ve lost a major constituency and a major organized force for progressive policies. And as they’ve lost it, they’ve ceased for a variety of reasons to be able to, or be willing to invest in trying to rebuild it. So the decline of labor, I think is a very big deal and more generally, they came in, Republicans, let us look at 2017. Mitch McConnell said it was the best year for conservatives on all fronts. Charles Koch was almost was maybe more effusive because I think McConnell said it was the best year in 30 years. And Charles Koch said we did more in the last five years sort of starting with the Tea Party’s rise than in the the prior 50 years. So they weren’t just talking about the $2 trillion in tax cuts, 80% of which went to the top 1% of the permanent tax cuts.
They were also talking about massive slashing of regulations. A lot of it through just staffing of administrative agencies with former lobbyist for the regulated industries and or people who are totally incompetent or ideologically extreme or both. But there’s a lot of big administrative shift, deregulatory shifts and climate policies and in healthcare, in labor and consumer protections that might not survive if there’s a shift in administration, but which could be made permanent in which have already done a lot of damage.
And then lastly, you just don’t want to forget two other things. One, they succeeded with judicial appointments and these pro-business conservative justices who are also socially conservative, represent really the kind of politocratic populist marriage of the party. That’s one of the things that we find most striking is that the one place where you can kind of find policies that really appeal to both the surrogate groups, like the NRA and the Christian right, and to business groups and really, really rich conservative donors is the Supreme Court and the courts more generally. And they’ve just become much more important for the right and the right has been very successful in stacking them in their favor. And then there’s one thing they didn’t do, but they came really close to doing, which was of course repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
Their top two legislative priorities after all, we’re doing the highly unpopular repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act, which they came just to a voter to short of getting through and the only slightly less unpopular tax bill, which they managed to pass. So I think it’s actually a story of much more substantial change. And I think that taxes are a really big deal and for the party and for American democracy. And so the fact that they’ve been the kind of key vehicle has expert been quite beneficial to the party strategy.
Matt Grossmann: So Paul, those bills were extraordinarily unpopular, but the broader Republican message of limited government is a little bit less unpopular. And my personal favorite Pierson and Hacker book, American Amnesia, you cite the long history of elite success in moving American opinion against the government. So I guess I’m wondering why that didn’t show up more in this book. The Republican party certainly stands out internationally as being a far right economic party, but the American public does not stand out as being particularly conservative on policy issues, but it does stand out in these kinds of views of government, of being antigovernment, of being not thinking it’s government’s responsibility to remedy inequality in the abstract of identifying as conservatives, even when you have liberal policy views and of believing erroneously in social mobility, that it can happen on its own. So I guess I wonder how much of that helps to explain why the Republican party can get away with these unpopular policies and why the Democratic party still faces difficulty, even when it enacts policies that the public says they support it.
Paul Pierson: Well, I’m surprised and it’s another great question. And I’m glad you liked the American Amnesia. We liked that book too though it arrived at the same time that Donald Trump was filling up all the space for conversation. So maybe not so well-timed to get his message across. I mean, first of all, I think in thinking about this idea of symbolic conservatism or sort of the broad strength of the conservative message within American political culture that one has to probably think about elites and the mass public separately about that. I mean, there are connections, but I think you’d have somewhat different conversations about the two. I think we are pretty skeptical about the idea that deeply held views among the electorate about these kinds of questions are very important part of this story. And I’ll say a couple of things about that.
I’m not saying that they’re not there and that that’s not real what you said, but we don’t think it’s that important a part of the story. And one way I think to get at that is to note how quickly conservatives, self-styled conservatives in the US morphed from the Tea Party to Trumpism, right? Which at a level, the principle, in most respects, these are diametrically opposed, right, in terms of the things that they say. Nobody is waving their pocket constitutions anymore. Right. Can you say that they’re engaged in a matter of principle, and they call it conservatism, but it’s radically different, right, to the point where they are, of course, over the moon in supporting a president who is clearly using whatever executive authority he can draw on no matter how flimsy the justification for it to, for example, coerce private companies, right, to favor him personally. It’s a long way from the kind of small government, market-oriented ethos that was supposed to be central to what was conservative principle less than a decade ago.
Matt Grossmann: So Jacob, you emphasized the role of the plutocrats and the Republican party, but you don’t quite say that they’re leading it. Sometimes they’re led along and they go along with it. So I guess who is in charge of the Republican party? And where should we see something like Fox News where obviously we could say Rupert Murdoch is one of the plutocrats? But obviously the network has even gone beyond what he felt comfortable with at times. And it certainly seems like a lot of times the plutocrats are trying to prevent the party from going in Trump’s direction before they end up giving in. So who’s in charge and how much does that matter?
Jacob Hacker: I mean, it would be too simple to say the plutocrats are in charge. As we put it in a book, they’re not Bond villains in some hidden layer inside a volcano hatching up their nefarious plot to take over the world. And it would be too flippant to say nobody is in charge. But in party politics, the way to think about a party, right, is that it’s an institution for achieving twin goals, right? It wants to reshape governance and it wants to win elections, so it can pursue that larger goal. And so the challenge for the Republican party that occurs as inequality skyrockets is basically do they stay true to those at the top and align themselves with the increasing number of plutocrats and the more conservative business organizations that are arising in that context, or do they chart a somewhat more moderate course?
And the answer turns out to be, through Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush, it turns out to be aligned with the plutocrats. And the result is of course that they’re now on the side of a very tiny slice of American society. And going back to Paul’s answer the kind of symbolic conservatism helps, but we know that that even Republicans don’t think that the top priority for government is cutting taxes on the rich. And when Republicans tried to run on the 2017 tax cut, they quickly discovered that it would be much better for them to resort to outrage stoking around immigrant invasion.
The question about Fox I think really ties nicely to what Paul was saying because I don’t know exactly what Rupert Murdoch thinks. I think Roger Ailes actually is pretty loyal to the Republican party indeed. He apparently believed in the bifarious lie that Donald Trump was throwing out there. But they’re a profit-seeking enterprise. And just like other right wing media before them and they’re even more extreme forms that now coexist with them, the idea is to find a profitable niche, use outrage, to gin up support for the network and for the advertisers. And whether or not that’s a serving Republican, sometimes and many times it’s quite helpful to the party. And other times it’s more problematic.
It turned out to be very hard for John Boehner and Paul Ryan to deal with the kind of Fox litmus test approach. And at one point, John Boehner’s chief of staff said of the right wing machine, “We fed the beast that ate us.” I think David Frum who has done a lot to sort of chronicle the kind of craziness in this world said, “We used to think that Fox News worked for us.” He was Bush’s speechwriter. “Now we’ve discovered we’re working for Fox.”
Jacob Hacker: So that’s I think why you shouldn’t think of the plutocrats as in charge, but they are getting what they want. And as a result of getting what they want, or they’re getting a lot of what they want far more than they expected under Trump, as a result of getting what they want, then the party really has no choice, but to find another set of appeals.
Matt Grossmann: Paul, your new book pays a lot more attention to racial resentment like the rest of political science and in Trump’s wake. And that hearkens back a little bit to the sort of older theories of why American politics never developed into quite the class-based coalitions that you might expect inequality, remedying politics to produce. So to what extent is this kind of just an inevitable outgrowth of race as a major cleavage in American politics, this for a long running cleavage? The south can switch sides and racial resentment can change in its roles, but we can never get out of this sort of basic dilemma. And to what extent is there any way out, especially when global politics appear, if anything, to be moving in a less economically-focused direction.
Paul Pierson: Yeah. And so that’s a huge set of questions. There’s no question. I think as we look at this now that you can see the powerful theme of racial division running all through American political history. And again, I think a nice point is Ziblatt’s work in this case though, the book with Levitsky, How Democracies Die. He points out they don’t really have space in that book to explore it because they’ve got other things to do, but he points out rightly I think that the period that we often think about is the kind of the golden era of American democracy with bipartisanship and this kind of Madisonian pluralist system really working its magic was a period in which African Americans were locked out, largely locked out of that democracy and that when they were fully incorporated right, or began to be fully incorporated and this, in some ways, repeated the story of the first reconstruction.
So when you get the second reconstruction, almost immediately the political system starts to have trouble, right. And you start to get a move towards this more polarized politics. So it does run very deep. And in fact, if you look beyond the US, examples of successful multiracial democracies are pretty hard to find. I think impossible to find on a large scale, right? So that can make you extremely pessimistic about this.
I think the reason for some optimism, though it’s a reasoning that is also fraught with difficulties as we stress in the book, is that the US is undergoing rapid demographic change in the direction of creating a multiracial society. And so the question is whether or not in a multiracial society, you’re going to have a multiracial democracy, right? And by multiracial society, I mean, one in which there is no racial group, which is a majority, right? So we’re moving in that direction. The question is whether or not a multiracial democracy will come out of that. And that we think is very much up for grabs. And the fact that we’re on that demographic path is part of the reason why the Republican party has moved towards this kind of identity politics.
It’s a really striking thing. You think about what Jacob was saying about the alternative paths or the off ramps from the kind of politics that we’re witnessing on the right at the moment. As late as 2004, 2005, the Bush administration, and Karl Rove is supposedly the political genius behind all of this, they had aspirations of being a permanent majority party or a longterm majority party. But they saw that as potentially a multiracial path. And they didn’t realize, I think in retrospect, the extent to which both their plutocratic commitments and the development of the surrogate groups that they had nurtured and aligned with were actually cutting off the kind of path that Rove outlined in his musings about how George W. Bush was going to be like McKinley.
Matt Grossmann: So Jacob, you explored a lot on the Republican party. And it certainly is a puzzle why the Republican party has remained a far right economic party and how it succeeds in doing that. But another way to put the question is why the democratic party has lost to a far right academic economic party. One popular recent explanation is that they have kind of pursued a social educated cosmopolitanism rather than the economic-based interests that would be able to defeat of our right economic party. What’s your view and what we gain by looking at the Democrats instead of the Republican view?
Jacob Hacker: Yeah. It’s a great question. And I do think it’s important to consider the role the Democrats play. It’s not a big focus of this book, but as you know in our prior work, we’ve we thought much more about the Democrats, particularly in Winner-Take-All Politics, our 2010 book. And like you, we really emphasize that the polarization of the parties has been asymmetric. That is to say the Republicans have moved much farther right than the Democrats have moved left. And the one reason for that is that both parties have been affected by the rise of winner-take-all economy at the increasing power of the plutocrats. There are after all plutocrats in both parties, even if the plutocratic choir sings with a very conservative accent. And those plutocrats within the Democratic party tend to be much more socially liberal than the kinds of swing voters that Democrats are trying to reach. And they also tend to be really skeptical of some progressive economic policies, particularly regulation and labor unions.
And so, as I said earlier, the decline of labor has been embedded in part by the cross pressures that the Democrats are facing. So I would not want to tell a story in which the Democrats are simply bit players, but there is a reason we focus on the Republican party. And I want to articulate that real quick before I come back to the Democrats. And that is the conservative dilemma that we talk about really works through Republican party. And they’re the party that is placed in the deepest sort of buying by the rise of extreme inequality. They’re the party that really has to reconcile the imbalance between the great economic and political power at the top. And the fact that to be a party in a democracy, you have to actually appeal to a lot of people who aren’t at the top.
And they’re also the ones that have to deal with this growing gap between the preferences of those at the top and the preferences of the rest of Americans. The one way they’ve dealt with it, and I think Democrats can be rightly faulted for not fighting back against this hard enough, early enough is that they’ve really sought to rig the game. And we should not forget that six of the last presidential elections resulted in a popular vote win for Democrats. But of course, Democrats did not win the oval office in two of those races, 2000 and 2016. And I do think that social liberalism can hurt the Democrats, but as you yourself has shown in some of your work, Americans are becoming more progressive on race and they’re becoming more progressive on many of these larger social and cultural issues.
To me, the biggest problem that the Democrats face besides the cross preferring that comes from the fact that the super rich are fairly conservative and provide a lot of money to both parties is I think the biggest problem is that they have tensions within their own constituencies over the investment in urban areas and the type of opportunity hoarding that we see in suburban areas. So those are challenges for the party, and they reflect parts of rural bias, but they’re not, I think, the fundamental cause of the Republican Party’s radicalization. Which is really a result of the rise of autocracy and the degree to which the party has turned to outrage stoking as a way of maintaining its electoral support, even if it caters to a tiny slice of people at the top of the economic ladder.
Matt Grossmann: So Paul, you acquiesce to the Let Them Eat Tweets title, even while staying off the platform. So if we have to imagine what the Hacker and Pierson buck will be called a few years from now, what should we expect?
Paul Pierson: Well, I have to say, I love the title from the beginning. It was Jacob’s idea if I’m remembering right, but it’s a little in your face, but I think it conveys a really significant amount of the message of the book. And so actually in your face and conveys the message of the book are pretty good things. So we’ll have to see how things unfold, but at the moment we’ve been talking about the next project as Under the Rubric of Fault Lines. I think that that title has been used a few times, so maybe we will need a different title. But we’re really interested in these geographic cleavages, the growth and transformation of these geographic cleavages in the United States. And that we’ve talked about some in this podcast, but in which Jacob in some ways is alluding by talking about the tensions within the Democratic Party, tensions between urban and suburban communities that are part of the democratic coalition, suburban communities becoming increasingly important parts of the democratic coalition in part as a backlash to Trump.
And there just some fascinating issues there that we see as pretty linked to the transformation of the American political economy. Not just the growth of inequality, but the spatial structure of the American economy. And some of this is covered in Robin’s book. Though, he’s more, I think, focused on kind of the legacies of the past and less on parsing the economy of the present and how it works. But of course, more and more economic activity is concentrated in the knowledge economy in urban agglomerations, right? Which are quite distinctive in the way that they distribute rewards, the kinds of political coalitions and political cleavages that they generate. And so, there’s really fascinating and important issues I think that political scientists and other social scientists really need to unpack here. We think that that really requires a strong shift within the sub field of studying American politics, towards issues of a political economy, which have been way underexplored, in our view. Within the subfield, Jake and I are actually working on a big project with a bunch of collaborators to try to develop more of a field of American political economy.
We can come back on your podcast another time and talk about some of that work, because we’re super excited about it. And I’ll just mention, in addition to Robin’s book, I think the work of another Berkeley grad and Grossman co-author, Dave Hopkins, this book Red Fighting Blue, right? Which is about the interplay between red states and blue states and the incentives that exist in these different states given the way that American politics is organized, spatially, are just fascinating and call out for more work. So we’re hoping to do some of that.
Matt Grossmann: Jacob, maybe you can close with a little bit more of a pitch for your way of doing political science and the role of these big picture projects in how our discipline advances and informs the political conversation?
Jacob Hacker: Well, let me first say thank you for having us on. It’s been a fascinating conversation and thank you for your own work. I think honestly we think a big part of what we’re doing is leveraging the really good work that’s being done by other scholars within the discipline, especially scholars who are focusing on some of these larger questions about the future of American democracy and bringing them together in a form that isn’t too political science-y, is readable and is capable of reaching a somewhat broader audience. But honestly, we do feel like every time we write one of these books, we end up feeling much more grateful for the great work that’s taking place in the discipline and hopeful that the kind of work that we draw on will become more prominent within it.
I want to say two things about our vision of political science. One is that we just think that political science really needs to start with the questions around governance, around how political actors use the coercive power of government to reshape society in durable ways, or at least attempt to do so. And I think Paul has a great line on this. He says that a lot of political science sort of sees politics as like that Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, right? Like where you wake up every day and things are the same. Hey, here’s another election and here’s another big budget fight. And here’s another moment when voters will have their identities reinforced or not. And we think that politics is not that much like Groundhog Day.
The big things happen that are cumulative and can really change things for the better or alas, for the worst. And so, we also think this ties political science much more closely to what citizens care about, makes it much more a science of democracy for citizens. And then, the other thing I want to just say is that we wrote this book because we’re really frankly quite worried about the state of American democracy and our worry isn’t just that if there are a set of policies that we’re sitting [inaudible 00:50:10] though don’t like that. It’s really that the Trump presidency represents [inaudible 00:50:17] and perhaps and hopefully culmination of a transformation of the GOP that poses a pretty profound threat to our democratic institutions.
It poses both the kind of well known authoritarian threat in the person of Donald Trump, but it also poses what we call a counter [inaudible 00:50:37] threat, the sort of desire for a minority to lock in priorities that are unpopular and not supported by a majority. And we all know that our political system is designed to make it hard for a majority to do what they want. But what we’re trying to show in this book is that our political system is now too often making it possible for minorities to do things that are both unpopular and harmful. And you can see that in the way the Supreme Court has become such a central arbiter of both the distribution of economic rewards and the distribution of political power in our society. We can see it in the degree to which this rural bias has been weaponized. And we can see it in the degree to which voters themselves are being sidelined in too many parts of our country. So we want a vigorous, two party politics with a strong conservative party and a strong progressive or liberal party. That’s not what we have right now. And that’s why we wrote the book.
Matt Grossmann: Well, there’s a lot more to learn, but that’s where we’ll have to leave it. So thanks to Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker for joining me. Please check out Let Them Eat Tweets and then join us again next time on the Science of Politics.